Lisa Dierbeck's second novel investigates the psycology of runaways
The Autobiography of Jenny X
Lisa Dierbeck 4/5 He’s not the centre of the story, but The Autobiography of Jenny X’s Dan Orsini is one of the most recognisable and fully realised characters we’ve read in ages. In her second novel, Dierbeck tells the many stories of Dan’s wife Nadia, formerly the girlfriend of Christopher Benedict, senator’s son and leader of the Aktionists.
A radical political performance group, the Aktionists threw art stunts and consumed acres of illicit substances until one stunt went too far and Benedict ended up in prison. His girlfriend Jenny flees the group and remakes herself as Nadia, a fairly successful photographer married to a celebrated oncologist. But her former boyfriend keeps sending her letters; when Dan begins opening the mysterious envelopes, her false life unravels, too.
Reminiscent of Christopher Sorrentino’s Patty Hearst novel, Trance, Dierbeck investigates the damaged psychology of runaways, and runaway politics. Nadia/Jenny must keep a mental catalogue of all of her lies, while convincing herself of the value of her new life. Christopher, meanwhile, thinly menaces from within solitary confinement and from the past, the kind of person whose idiosyncratic charm a reader can appreciate but never fall sway to.
But in Dan we find the unstable lynchpin of the book. He’s a man attempting to piece together the shrouded past of his wife, while also diligently scrubbing his own. While his wife is thinking of Christopher’s dangerous beauty, he’s using a shoehorn to put on his dress shoes. In other words, like the reader, he’s coming to all these questions of identity late and a little slowly, even as the book’s pace heats up.