The deceived lover is always a detective. Once you suspect your partner has been unfaithful, everything becomes evidence of her infidelity: when she arrives home, what she wears, even the way she washes dishes. Suspicion charges and changes formerly prosaic objects and gestures; the ephemeral trash of our daily existence takes on true weight. And because anything could be the thing that tells the truth–the hard piece of the world that transforms idea into fact–everything is worthy of attention. But doubt and distrust provide certain pleasures, ones that are as powerful as they are perverse. These satisfactions are the reason we remain so long with the people who betray us: Under investigation, our dull, daily routines become, for once, the stuff of intrigue. We are, at last, alive to our own lives.
One such domestic detective speaks the first words of Lisa Dierbeck’s fast-paced, psychologically taut second novel, The Autobiography of Jenny X. “Nadia, are you cheating me?” Dan Orsini asks his wife, whose recent behavior has raised a few questions. How, Dan wonders, could pampered Nadia–mother of his pampered children–forget her own birthday? Where was she that day, and why has a federal prisoner been sending letters to someone named “Jenny X” in Nadia’s care, letters that refer to “an accident in Lucidora” and a group called the Aktionists? It’s a beguiling premise, and Ms. Dierbeck’s depiction of the ways in which Dan’s fear disturbs his placid upper-middle-class existence is sly and sharp. She describes the Orsini home with a broker’s cool eye for detail: art studio, swimming pool, flower gardens, flagstone path. In the bathroom sits a glass bowl brimming with expensive soaps, the kind one might find in a model home or luxury hotel. Dan’s domestic staff is responsible for the soap, and for everything else: “wool sweaters materialized on the shelves of his closet in November and, like the icicles that melted on the front porch, the wool sweaters vanished in the spring. This was the normal way of things.”
The new way of things demands that these objects of anonymous luxury become the subject of scrutiny. What was once familiar is now foreign, and Ms. Dierbeck excels at capturing the emotional contradictions wrought by this change: Dan is simultaneously capsized by uncertainty, distracted from his duties as a doctor and freshly focused, in command of his senses and surroundings for the first time. Breaking into Nadia’s studio, he finds paintings of the same unfamiliar man, as well as proof that her brown eyes are the product of colored contact lenses and her family heirlooms thrift-store trinkets to which she has assigned false histories.
MARITAL MONITORING IS not the only kind of surveillance Ms. Dierbeck explores. While Dan prowls around his palatial home near the Delaware River, Christopher Benedict, a wealthy senator’s son-cum-convict, sits in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison. “Inside and out,” Christopher observes, “men were under twenty-four-hour surveillance. The Feds were wire-tapping. They were listening in on phone conversations, patting down pedestrians, looking for political subversives in public libraries and college classrooms.” When exactly the events of The Autobiography of Jenny X occur is unclear: Characters talk of “the old days,” a period called The Years of Lead when “the justices resigned” and “the laws kept shifting.” By obscuring the past from view, Ms. Dierbeck unsettles our understanding of the present: Do her characters live in a dystopian America, or do Americans these days live in a dystopia? The allusions and confusions draw a tight, tense wire beneath the rest of the narrative and adds to it a little thrill.
But the opacity that otherwise electrifies Ms. Dierbeck’s novel enervates her treatment of Christopher, who is, we learn, the mind behind the mysterious group mentioned in the letters to Jenny. Under his leadership, the Bond Street Aktionists created “profound visceral experience[s],” public performances in which the body replaced the canvas as the site of artistic production. For most of the novel, Ms. Dierbeck merely alludes to these performances and the political beliefs that inspired them, never specifying their exact nature. Only near the end do we witness an Aktionist event, the “accident in Lucidora”: A war veteran, high on heroin provided by Christopher, kills herself onstage. Christopher flees to the Aktionist safe house, but someone tips the police off to its location, and they ship him off to prison for trafficking drugs.
We are told many times that Christopher is charming; his calling a prison official “darling” is presented as proof. It’s insufficient evidence, and to the reader, Christopher comes off as a collection of tics and abstract complaints. His anger is amorphous and unfocused; like an angry teenager, he perceives injustice in the world but makes no effort to understand the conditions that produce it, remaining instead enclosed and self-satisfied in his righteous rage. Ms. Dierbeck wants the reader to sympathize with Christopher and his aesthetic agenda, his belief in art as something that startles blind consumers into becoming sighted, sentient citizens, and it may be that she hopes her novel will have such an effect on its readers. Yet Christopher as he is rendered on the page lacks the intelligence to persuade the reader of his, and his art’s, potential power, and consequently passages that ought to read as incendiary instead fall flat.
WHILE DAN PURSUES Nadia, Christopher pursues Jenny, his former lover and possibly the informant responsible for his arrest. When they first meet, Jenny is a poor, fat “trashy” teenager who steals, strips and sucks up drugs, unseemly in all respects and therefore attractive to Christopher. Jenny devotes herself to Christopher and his work, but what draws Christopher to Jenny also disgusts him, and he abandons her to pursue Aktionist projects–and richer, thinner romantic conquests–alone, a decision he comes to regret. When he gets out of prison, he sets out to find her, and when he finds her, he realizes she does not exist: “Jenny was his fiction, his creation, his protagonist. … She’d flourished in his dreams but out here, in life, she’d ceased to be.” The beloved, like the murder suspect, must exist as an idea before she can be apprehended. Just as Christopher does when he finds a woman’s wallet in the prison, we gather the facts as best we can and from them fashion for ourselves a whole person. But, of course, what is based in fact is not fact itself; it is fiction. The moment we set out in pursuit of someone, Ms. Dierbeck suggests, is the moment they escape us: We’ll never find a fantasy.
The more literal reason that Jenny no longer exists is because, as the reader realizes early on, she is now Nadia. After Christopher’s arrest, the girl from the projects reinvents herself as an art student whose ancestors were Russian aristocrats. As Nadia, she meets and seduces Dan, whose real name is Dante. A bartender working to pay his way through medical school, Dan tells Nadia during their first conversation that he changed his name in order “to get ahead in the world. … I’d rather not remind everyone–my professors, lab technicians–that my mom and dad are illiterate, that they grew up on top of a mountain in Sardinia, herding goats. You know?”
It is a question that is implicitly attended by another: How do you know? Ms. Dierbeck implies that, in one way or another, we’re all in flight from the past. We deceive others about who we are in hopes that we might become the person we pretend to be. All names are false, all identifies assumed. To be an adult is always to be living undercover, hoping that the children we once were won’t hunt us down.