Fiona Maazel, Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
Lucy Clark’s family could only exist on the page. Her mother, Isifrid, is a Viking-obsessed crack addict. Her twelve-year-old half-sister is the kind of super-precocious kid who not only knows what a sperm analysis kit is, but is aware that one can be purchased online. Agneth, her cape-wearing grandmother, is heavily invested in reincarnation, and believes that her granddaughter was a flagellant in a past life (“it would help me understand her better,” she explains). Lucy’s father, a scientist, killed himself after a vial of the lethal “superplague” he formulated was stolen from his lab. Unknown perpetrators have since unleashed it on the general population.
In her debut novel Last Last Chance, Fiona Maazel lets this outrageous family’s dramatics play out against a backdrop of near-catastrophe. They have plenty of issues to deal with apart from the bad publicity that comes when a relative may be responsible for the gruesome death of thousands: heartbreak, addiction and emotional treachery are major preoccupations.
On a moral level, the plague may offer these floundering folks some perspective—in a “Hey, my own issues don’t look so bad compared to the specter of fatal disease” kind of way—but Maazel is less interested in relativism than in exploring how people go about their lives in times of serious restlessness. For these characters, the looming plague just adds another layer to an ever-present anxiety. Lucy, a studied fuck-up in her late twenties, feverishly narrates as she shuffles between brief employment at a kosher chicken plant, her family’s posh New York City apartment, and a rehab facility in the Texas desert.
There are familiar situations: Lucy’s still in love with her ex-boyfriend, but he married her best friend. She copes with this mainly by calling their house in the middle of the night and hanging out silently on her end of the line. Meanwhile, she’s taken up with Stanley, her former coworker at the chicken plant, now searching for a surrogate to incubate his dead wife’s eggs. The story bustles forward in a consistently rambling style. Maazel handles her many characters as if they’re all members of the same family, even if not actually bound by blood.
Moments of graceful physical description—though not rare—read as spots of lucidity in an otherwise manic brain. Of the first time Stanley and Lucy are alone together, Maazel writes simply, “We fit together nicely, and after, he was sweet about it.” Later, Lucy recalls fumbling around with a guy, his fingers in her sky-blue underwear probing for “the hiatus in my skin.” When she calls her estranged best friend in the middle of the night, that friend “sounds like Vivien Leigh, circa 1940, where she can be asking for toast and still mean: I’m dying!”
More than anything—more than love or hope or the frailty of the human body—Last Last Chance is attentive to the dark comedy of death, and the ways we reckon with it, or refuse to. As the superplague claims victims around the country, there are plenty of opportunities to ponder the meaning of it all. Owing to grandma Agneth’s faith in multiple lives, interstitial chapters are written from the point of view of reincarnated souls who reflect on their various existences, and offer doses of philosophy: “While there is no reason to accept intelligent design in lieu of the big bang, there is every reason to embrace reincarnation as the means by which our lives have purpose,” one of them insists. “Just knowing you’ll be back is reason to prepare.” These digressions don’t always blend with the rest of the busy saga, which sometimes seems about to spiral out of control.
The book is buoyed by Maazel’s fresh, lively writing, and the pleasure she clearly takes in relating this deeply weird, unexpectedly eerie story. When Lucy steps back to consider the people in her life—their tastes and tensions and allegiances—the author gives her heroine space to breathe a little more deeply. It’s a pleasure to breathe along with her.