A Taxonomy of Barnacles

Alliteration and evolution run rampant in NYC-set debut novel.

Galt Niederhoffer is a great name for someone who writes tongue-twisters disguised as novels, just as indie filmmaker is a fantastic day job for someone whose novels put readers in a headspace squarely between Hannah and Her Sisters and The Virgin Suicides. Toward the beginning of this incredibly dense, hyperalliterated New York City novel, the Barnacle sisters—get this: Bridget, Bell, Benita, Beth, Belinda, and Beryl, ages 10 to 29—are issued a challenge by their Darwin-loving, sonless father, Barry: Make the family name immortal. I say "toward the beginning" because nothing in Taxonomy happens in short order; you're almost a third of the way through before you fully understand the girls' quest—even though the dinner organized to announce it starts within the first few pages. Before anyone even sits down at that important Barnacle family dinner, you get, among other highly stylized data, an exhaustive, exhausting tour of the family's Fifth Avenue apartment and a long, painful explanation of the daring, flirtatious, years-long game between 26-year-old Bridget and Billy, her downstairs neighbor and former boyfriend (who also has a twin brother, Blaine). Niederhoffer, who produced Prozac Nation and a handful of other films, loves details. She rolls around on the floor in them, and invents reasons to stay there. The author illustrates by showing and by telling; and, unfortunately, the telling becomes especially maddening. "Now, they were experts and aficionados, veritable curators of the marriage proposal," she writes after two tedious pages of Bridget and Billy's banter. No shit, you're thinking, let's get on with the story. Right from the start, you feel as if you're being led around by a strung-up carrot—albeit a meticulously described carrot. Niederhoffer crafts memorable characters and settings, yet all the minute details don't really advance the story. Backstories are loaded with even more B-names, and Niederhoffer's florid, full-to-bursting wordplay slows things down even more. Whittled down, Taxonomy is the story of Bridget and Billy, and of eldest sister Bell and Blaine, but the novel also belongs to New York, the Yankees, and the Red Sox. By the time you're able to remember which sister is which without referencing the artful, fun cover art (wherein the sisters are labeled like scientific specimens), the tale—thankfully—has become more or less two parallel love stories set against ballgames and the subway system. Slightly less burdened by the peripheral sisters and their backgrounds, Niederhoffer uses baseball metaphors and twin clichés to slowly (slowly) tease out the process of natural selection. If you have the tenacity to get there, the payoff is worth it. And that, I suppose, is Niederhoffer's point. Galt Niederhoffer will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., Feb. 7.

 
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