Christie Hodgen's new novel, Elegies for the Brokenhearted, reminds us that an elegy is a mix of sorrow and exuberance, like an upbeat tune with rueful lyrics. It's narrated by Mary Murphy, a self-described "mope . . . loner . . . drag . . . slouch," living in a nameless postindustrial New England city. Early in the novel, a fourteen-year-old Mary, at a nearby beach with her family, contemplates a trio of British punks causing a stir on the boardwalk and wonders "what it would be like to walk through the world and leave a wake behind you, the sound of people speaking your name." When the rockers turn out to be roadies, Mary realizes that it doesn't take fame to stir up others' lives.
This is the novel's guiding principle, and it's organized into five elegies for people who've touched Mary's life: her roguish uncle, a hapless classmate, her first-year college roommate, a failed musical prodigy, and her own errant mother. Hers are not so much elegies for as elegies to: The dead are addressed always as "you." Each person holds sway over a portion of Mary's life, and together their stories form a composite autobiography, an antidote to Mary's isolation, the self-imposed regime of silence she describes as a "chloroformed cotton ball dropped into the jar in which I lived." A life composed of the lives of others, she seems to say, can never be lived alone.
Elegies can be prone to sugarcoating, yet Hodgen avoids this, partly because her buoyant language eschews cliché, partly because Mary's wretched past leaves little to be sentimental for. The decaying landscape of the city in which the tale is set—like the characters that shuffle through it—occupies a tawdry present haunted by past aspirations. Everyone, in one way or another, is a failure, turning against one another as much as a matter of survival as a form of revenge for their lots in life:
We were poor, our lives filled with the stupid things that poor people did, the brutalities we committed against each other, the violence, the petty victories we claimed over one another, crabs topping each other in a basket instead of trying to climb out of that basket; the desperate, impulsive lurches we made at love, no matter what the cost to those around us or how fleeting we knew that love would be. . . . We were poor.
Misguided attempts at love are the touchstones of Mary's youth. Her mother cycles through marriages like clothing, which she wears with the tags still on and returns the next day. All but orphaned as children, Mary and her sister, Malinda, stayed close. But after high school, Malinda, by then "wholly cruel," disappears, and Mary, though trying to find her own way in the world, spends the rest of the novel groping for her sister's missing presence.
Hodgen, the daughter of poet John Hodgen, has an ear for rhyme and meter. Her metaphors have a certain quirk—a drunk's eyes swirl "in the manner of a cartoon character hypnotized by a mad scientist." These metaphors, like the cultural detritus with which the tale is strewn—the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle, mood rings, T-shirts with "those iron-on transfers, plastic melting onto cotton"—give it the bright verve of an '80s pop song. The dialogue snaps—wicked as an adverb, summer as a verb—with lines that break oddly and lend rhythm.
Everyone in this novel, it seems, is on the point of running away from somewhere or someone. Several of Hodgen's characters have a habit, when a lover has left them, of writing down all their past conversations. Like these desperate records, Mary's elegies are an attempt to recapture the brightness of brief, troubled meetings long after they've ended. More than this, they seek to find the places in the present where Mary's dead are still alive. "The barriers between us are as thin as the air we breathe," Mary says in a moment of drunk sermonizing. "We're all living at the same time, and right next to each other." Through Hodgen's incantatory prose, the novel dissolves these barriers, and Mary's dead, while not always forgivable, become too alive to forget.
Jenny Hendrix is a graduate student in cultural reporting and criticism at New York University and an editorial intern at Bookforum.