The light from Laura Zigman’s new novel, “Separation Anxiety,” arises from a type of literary nuclear fusion: a deep compression of sorrow and humor. The combination of those elements usually produces whimsical Kali comedy, something funny and bitter, but Zigman’s work is also tender for that.
“Separation Anxiety” is a long-awaited return for this talented writer who has not published a novelty since the “piece of work” in 2007. A series of personal tragedies, including the deaths of his parents and his own cancer diagnosis, is what he calls “Zigman swept in so many idle years.” But now, he has transferred those struggles into a new book — a “second chance” — about a successful writer whose world is crumbling under the weight of despair and fear.
When we meet the narrator, Judy Vogel, she is punctured by a steady leak of optimism. Years ago, she had published a classic children’s book that became a PBS series — an exciting, engaging success that really led to nothing else. At 50, she weeds the loss of her parents, nursing her best friend through the final stages of a fatal illness, and the happy rapport she once enjoyed with her son, who has gone into “cruel teenage obscurity.” Yearning
What’s worse, Judy is trapped in a zombie wedding. It is over between her and her husband, but if she cannot afford to live elsewhere, she is sleeping in the guest room, and they are sticking together, all pretending okay.
Everything is not fine.
Judy says at her lowest point, “Life eventually takes away everyone and everything we love and leaves us far away. Grabbing a copy of Mary Kondo’s best-selling declaring book, she’s happy. One last-ditch effort to find the sparks goes down in the cellar. “So little it makes me happy now that I’m afraid I own every single thing I ever owned and nothing “I will get rid of the end with that,” he admits. “Feeling empty only makes me want to be empty.”
In these opening pages, Zigman digs into self-affirmation of the nature of depression with the authenticity of someone who has been hounded by a black dog. But sorrow here is always twinned with comedy. Amidst all the basement junk, Judy finds an environmentally friendly baby sling that she never used. Driven by longing, he puts it on. She says, “I feel like Björk wearing the swan at the Oscars,” but something is missing. He tries to fill the sling with bath towels. Then a cabbage. In the end, it strikes her: the family dog, Charlotte, is just right. She says, “At first, I only wear the dog indoors.” It seems quite harmless. An immediate self-care remedy that works better than any psychopath immediately or baked good ever.
That deliciously absurd tone runs straight through this novel. Soon Judy is wearing her 20-pound canine baby for the grocery store and even for her son’s school. “Shouldn’t everyone wear a dog for better mental health?” That miracle.
But what keeps “separation anxiety” is Zigman’s attention to the simple stupidity of middle-class life from spinning off into some real parallel universe of ignorance. That comedy we’ve seen, but has a great humorous eye for the unseen — such as the stressful preciousness of Montessori schools or the satisfaction of people who subscribe to meal kits. He is particularly funny about the devotion to our own culture. To make ends meet, Judy churns out click-bait for a healthy website well-known / Does working at home make you less attractive? (If you’re one of the “lucky” people still working as a journalist, this will also make the real line of contemporary satire make you laugh…. And cry.) And among the funniest sections of the novel One includes an Instagram guru “in leggings and a white cashmere poncho-cape” whose perfectly curated life is the object of Judy’s jealousy and scorn. (Gwyneth Paltrow: Call your agent — or your lawyer.)
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of “separation anxiety” is the way Zigman easily choreographed the novel’s apparently random goofy. The life-sized puppet artist who steps into Judy’s house as her wedding fall antics seem to stretch too far. “My mothers were founding members of this puppet theater at Bennington College,” one of them explains. “They just did a puppet adaptation of the vagina monologue.” But those “puppet people” finally make perfect sense and make a beneficial contribution to Judy’s house. Also, in his son’s school with a dark, scatological epithet. For better or for worse, there is a gunshot. Judy can learn to deal with it or drown it.
Followed by the loneliness of middle age, you might think the last thing you need is a novel about a woman inspired to wear her dog. You would be wrong.
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