Jim Krusoe’s second novel, Girl Factory, opens on what appears to be an ordinary Saturday morning: A man reads the newspaper and drinks coffee (“black, two sugars”) on his balcony. Within minutes, however, an article about a too-smart, genetically engineered dog whose “surly way and judgmental demeanor” disconcert the people around him sends the man off, crowbar in his sleeve, to free this special beast from the animal shelter. The man’s plan—like most of his life—goes terribly awry, leaving a Cub Scout dead and a killer pooch (he freed the wrong animal) on the loose. As strangely whimsical as it is macabre, this tale could easily have become an on-the-run-from-the-law picaresque or an animal rights satire, but in Krusoe’s spirited hands it humbly fades into the backdrop, as the real story, far more sinister and equally madcap, unfolds.
It turns out that the narrator, a man in his thirties named Jonathan, is a clerk at a mall yogurt shop called Mister Twisty’s. It also turns out that the shop’s owner, a man named Spinner, has been experimenting with the preservative powers of acidophilus, keeping a handful of young women suspended comatose in cylinders of yogurt solution in the basement. If Jonathan can save the women, he will be a hero and perhaps absolve his own past misdeeds in the bargain. But he is far from a scientist, and his bumbling attempts to counteract the yogurt are both hilarious and sad: First he drowns a handful of mice in it and vainly attempts to revive them, then drowns a rat with incisors “like two narrow, gray tombstones. The white streak above his eye pointed in my direction like an accusing finger.” All of this before he turns to the women, frozen in their glowing tubes, mysterious, mythical, carnal.
Initially, Jonathan sees nothing more than the women’s basic physical characteristics: blonde, Latina, Asian—and possibly the college girlfriend who abruptly left him for a Frenchman. They are ripe for the imposition of memory and fantasy, which is not too different from the way American culture sees live women, and which, of course, is Krusoe’s point. Yet he is never heavy-handed—his writing is too unpretentious, his characters too wonderfully peculiar. As in his last novel, Iceland (2002), which features a woman who swims in a pool of internal organs to keep them company before transplant, Krusoe here uses the body to comment on relationships, desire, and memory.
At times, though, one wishes for a few concrete details. We never learn, for instance, who the women are or how they came to be in their tubes. But this, too, underscores one of Krusoe’s themes: that life, unlike most stories, leaves so much unknowable. And this makes Girl Factory the best kind of novel—a wildly imagined tale with its own rules. A word of warning, however: You may never look at your yogurt the same way again.