Even if they haven’t read it, most people are familiar with the premise of Washington Irving’s 1819 short story “Rip Van Winkle.” In it, the title character mysteriously falls asleep for 20 years, waking to find that he’s missed, among other events, the American Revolution.
Alison McGhee’s third novel, “The Opposite of Fate,” is sort of a “Rip Van Winkle” for the 21st century. What her central character — 23-year-old massage therapist Mallie Williams — sleeps through, however, is a violent rape that leaves her in a coma, as well as pregnant. In the 16 months she spends unconscious, her body becomes a battleground for pro-lifers and pro-choicers, the outcome of which is that she gives birth via C-section to a child she never knew she was carrying. As the first chapter explains, “In the quiet white room with the double-glazed window, Mallie lay silent and asleep and unaware of the debate and protests and media coverage swirling around her. By all appearances, she was also unaware of the complicated emotions of the people who loved her, the ones who came and went from her bedside.”
The novel opens just as Mallie improbably awakens in the hospital near where she grew up “in the rural hinterlands north of Utica” and begins to piece together the almost incomprehensibly dreadful incidents that have taken place. From there, she must decide how she can possibly recuperate her life.
Present to help (and sometimes hinder) her are William T., a surrogate father who took over caring for Mallie and her younger brother Charlie after their mother, Lucia, got pulled into a conservative Christian congregation they jokingly refer to as a cult; William T.’s girlfriend Crystal, who runs the town diner; Burl, a friendly mailman who raised $37,692 for Mallie’s cause; Charlie himself, wracked with guilt over his role in Mallie’s assault; and Zach, Mallie’s boyfriend and first love.
McGhee puts her protagonist through agonizing suffering not dissimilar to that which Joyce Carol Oates sometimes puts hers through — “she has experienced overwhelming trauma,” the professionals at the hospital say. Unlike Oates’ typically Gothic bent, McGhee’s approach is optimistic and upbeat.
Even though McGhee pays some attention to the nature of experiencing this kind of anguish in the digital age — “Everything was public and everything was forever on the goddamn internet,” William T. laments — the book is less a cultural commentary and more the story of an unconventional family trying to figure out a way forward after an unfathomable crisis.
Laudable for its heartfelt attempts to give nuance to sweeping political questions, “The Opposite of Fate” rejects the idea of “the flat rightness and wrongness of things” in favor of a fraught and human complexity.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” and the forthcoming “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: A Novel of World War I.”
The Opposite of Fate
By: Alison McGhee.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 265 pages, 26.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. April 7, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. April 8, SubText Books, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul.