Family Genus Species, by Kevin Allardice
@@ (2 out of 5)
In a satirical take on Berkeley’s “self-righteous mutual appreciation society,” Berkeley author Kevin Allardice meshes the language of discontent with the fantasy of the absurd. The author himself characterizes his new novella, Family Genus Species, as a “wickedly funny satire of parenting and privilege, sex and politics, set in the shadow of civil unrest.” But I didn’t find the book wickedly funny. In fact, I didn’t find it funny at all—mildly amusing at times, perhaps, but not funny. Berkeley has taken enough hits from outsiders. We don’t need another one from our own.
Here’s the set-up; take it or leave it. The protagonist is an overweight and underachieving young woman who calls herself Vee. (We’ll find out later where this name comes from but wish we hadn’t.) Vee arrives in the urban garden behind her sister Pam’s house in North Berkeley for a birthday party for Pam’s four-year-old son, Charlie. Vee carries a present for Charlie, a plastic model of a huge dinosaur. Pam had made clear in her invitation that guests were not to bring presents—family and friends are gifts enough, in her view—but for some reason Vee is determined that Charlie get the dinosaur. For much of the novel, the action centers around Vee’s hours-long and exceedingly frustrating efforts to find Charlie so she can place the gift in his hands. Somehow, this deceptively low-key domestic saga devolves into a violent climax involving an attempted rape, small children acting like characters out of Lord of the Flies, “protesters” who have invaded the Berkeley Hills, and police officers in riot gear who descend from black helicopters intent on mayhem.
So, what’s wrong with any of this, you might ask? For starters, Vee is not a sympathetic character. Even though her big sister is obviously a self-involved (and, yes, self-righteous) pain in the ass, Vee is even less likable: self-pitying, aimless, and ultimately uninteresting. The children at Charlie’s party who are described as “small children, from diaper-age to first grade,” suddenly end up acting and speaking like teenagers on speed. And Pam’s “sprawling urban farm” clearly occupies as much territory as a national forest, since people can get lost in it for hours on end. In Berkeley.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love satire—when it’s well done. The work of Christopher Buckley, for example, such as They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, which I reviewed at Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel. Or his God is My Broker, reviewed at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley. You might also be interested in Ten great recent books by Berkeley writers.