Fumbling her way through obsession: A spiky, satirical novel about a socially awkward young woman.
A third of the way through "Radio Iris," Anne-Marie Kinney's spiky debut novel, we learn something surprising about its heroine. Iris, a twenty-something office worker in a very odd office, recalls the horses she lived near as a child. "She could talk to them for hours," Kinney writes, "leaning her cheek against the fence between the backyard and corral."
A young girl talking to horses isn't so unusual. What's striking is that it's a rare moment where Iris speaks comfortably. "Radio Iris" is a novel about failures to communicate, and throughout the book Iris stumbles, sputters and struggles to get words out, scribbling notes only she will notice. At one point she sticks a label under her desk that reads, "Hello and good luck with the earthquake."
Kinney doesn't mean to make Iris timid so much as the central figure in a satire of modern city life. After all, real-life conversations rarely flow novelistically; we endure truckloads of small talk and halting chatter. Still, Iris is undeniably a shade neurotic, fumbling dates and alienating her sole close friend. "She will lie still and worry about everything from the depletion of the world's natural resources to the fact that she cannot remember when she was last at the dentist," Kinney writes.
The plot of "Radio Iris" turns on Iris' growing obsession with 2B, the mysterious office next to hers, 2A. Her own job is baffling enough: After nearly two years as an executive assistant, she remains uncertain what her employer does, and her boss routinely sends her on cryptic missions. Maybe just knock on the door of 2B and say hi? No chance: After spotting its mysterious occupant, "she feels that if she let it, her heart could push its way out of her chest, her blouse flapping with its beat, blood soaking though in an ever expanding circle."
Which is to say that "Radio Iris" exists in a potent unreality, "The Office" as scripted by Kafka. But Kinney's steady, elegant prose is easy to immerse in, and in time she reveals a tragedy that partly justifies Iris' frustrated silence. Her brother, a salesman who's discovering the limits of his glad-handing, bolsters the theme. During one botched meeting, "all he can think of to say is what he's actually thinking, always a no-no."
As with him, so with Iris -- and, Kinney implies, so with us. Iris' private notes evoke our struggle to speak freely; her taking refuge in classic rock and R&B reflects our urge to let somebody else do the talking. "Radio Iris" careens to an absurd close that may frustrate anybody who prefers a story told straight. But its quirkiness highlights an emotional freedom that's hard fought for.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.