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May 18, 2015

The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis Von Konigslow

the-capacity-for-infinite-happinessI credit this to living downtown, or maybe there are interesting, creative people everywhere, but I have had some incredible fortune meeting other mothers at the library’s baby time. Most recently, Alexis Von Konigslow whose debut novel is The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, a weird, enthralling, and singularly original book. I was drawn to it by its story of a mathematician, because I love books about math and science, which allow me access to these worlds I’m not otherwise privy to. But I wasn’t as sure about the rest of the book’s description—Harpo Marx, who I wouldn’t be able to tell from Karl, and Passover, when I know as much about the Seder as I do about the Marx Brothers. More over, how do you plot a novel whose points are so divergent, against the setting of a Muskoka lodge, no less? But plotting points is what the book is all about, in terms of math and narrative, drawing connections between ideas, and the pattern that emerges is remarkable.

It’s the story of Emily who seeks refuge at her family’s lodge in Muskoka, a near century old Jewish resort, after a devastating revelation from her mother and frustration with her PhD thesis. She has been mapping social networks, showing how math can chart the connections between people, and she wants to apply what she’s learned to her own family and the lodge, but the lines aren’t matching up. She’s having trouble untangling the connections, figuring out who came from where in her family’s complicated network, and what exactly happened years ago when her great-great-grandparents arrived in Canada escaping persecution in Russia. Her confusion isn’t mitigated by her grandmother and great-aunt’s cryptic ways with history and storytelling—Emily’s questions are never properly answered. Was Harpo Marx really once a guest at the lodge? What is the real story of her family in Russia? And what was her great-grandmother’s tragic secret?

Emily’s story takes place in 2003, and is countered with chapters from 1933 when Harpo Marx was indeed a guest at the lodge. These chapters are from Harpo’s point of view, which might explain their oddness, their dreamlike sensibility. Though Emily’s story is pretty strange as well, her character as eccentric as her ancestors’. She and her friend Jonah, who she’s known since childhood and has feelings for, begin to care for a pet lamp called Jazzy. A kookiness that might be characteristic of the Marx Brothers infuses the entire narrative. It is all very odd and slightly skewed, and would be off-putting and fey in the hands of a lesser author, but Von Konigslow is very good. There is something so absorbing about the novel’s crafting, how its two parts start to echo each other, a formula that begins to emerge as to how they are connected, and this is the mystery for which we are reading. This project is large and ambitious, and fascinatingly realized—when I got to the end, I was breathless. It was such a pleasure to read this book, which is unlike any I’ve ever read before.

And now I want to go and watch A Night at the Opera.

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