It's turn-of-the-century New York, a city bursting with new life as the old century's order makes way for the mercantile class. But in the Pinkerton household a nineteenth-century embarrassment remains. Alice Pinkerton. Alice isn't mad exactly, but she's not sane either. She is tolerated, free to wander about, free to accompany her family to tea parties - free to be treated like a simpleton.
But in truth Alice's mind is razor sharp, honed by a restless imagination, years of reading and a profound contempt for her surroundings. Left alone to read, to think, she has devoured the world that brings her mind alive: Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Michelangelo, Whitman, Poe, they are her inspiration; Jane Eyre, Catherine Moreland, Desdemona her companions. As she moves through the witless world around her, observing its prejudices, its shallow culture and its vanity, it is society that prompts her observations, viewing all through the prism of the art that has sustained and nourished her lonely life.
Rushforth's pyrotechnic second novel (appearing 25 years after the publication of his acclaimed debut, Kindergarten) seeks to capture, in one day, the play of forces literary, musical, medical and sexual that made Edwardian New York society. At the center is Alice Pinkerton, nearly 35-year-old "spinster," the "madwoman in the attic" of Longfellow Park. Actually, she is not confined to an attic: she writes, goes to church and takes care of her mother. But these details are almost hidden in the deluge of Alice's inner life flowing over these pages, with a richness comparable to Leopold Bloom's in Ulysses. Alice, it appears, suffers from hypertrophy of childhood memories and a consequent emotional vacancy of adult experience. Does it stem from her discovery, at 20, of the body of her father, who committed suicide in his study? Perhaps the real key to Alice's condition goes back to twinned mysteries: the disappearance of her beloved childhood maid, and the source of her hatred for her father. Alice's fantasies and musings are stuffed with references to Shakespeare, 19th-century novels and poetry (particularly Stevenson's The Children's Hour, which exerts a surprisingly sinister influence in her life), opera and popular music; these are both buffers against reality and a means of mythologizing her neighbors. The flaw is that Rushforth has created no character in the book to counterbalance Alice; you sometimes feel that, in this mansion of a novel, you are locked in a small crowded closet.