There IS something deeply unsettling about "Iodine," Haven Kimmel's latest novel. It's not that the novel is particularly shocking per se -- surprising since the first line is a stunner: "I never had sex with my father but I would have, if he had agreed." Instead, it's the sense of manipulation that rises so that you're never quite sure if you're dealing with an unreliable narrator or a deceptive author. There's no shame in either approach, really, provided the final execution doesn't rely on great heaps of exposition. A reader will believe an unreliable narrator's parallax view provided there is some bedrock of truth; if we can't trust the narrator, we must be able to trust the author.
Margaret Atwood's "Surfacing" used a similar juxtaposition between narrator and author in explicating the human mystery of memory, and it stands as a firm literary sister to Kimmel's work. Where Atwood looked at identity, emotional cataclysm and societal malaise through the rubric of second-wave feminism, Kimmel uses post-Jungian psychology, but both finally linger on a singular conceit: Are we to believe what we've been shown?
Trace Pennington is a college senior with two majors and four minors. Her breadth of intelligence is such that she's typically three steps ahead of her professors. But this is no Tri-Delt living a charmed college life. Instead, Trace lives in an abandoned house in the middle of rural Indiana, showers at the truck stop, reads by kerosene lamp, cooks by Sterno flame. Trace whiles away the hours scrawling by hand her thoughts, memories and dreams in a free-verse frenzy of erudition.
Trace inhabits two separate lives. The first, in what we are led to believe is the real time of the late 1980s, is of a college student named Ianthe Covington (an identity she's taken from a tombstone to hide from her abusive mother, Loretta) who falls in love with an enigmatic professor named Jacob Matthias. It is this love affair that causes the unwinding of Trace as she is forced to confront her past. Her journal life reveals a twisted family: The sainted father Colt, whom she loved passionately and who looked the other way at her abuse; a brother, Billy, who tried to protect her but who has disappeared; and a sister, Dusty, who used drugs to sharpen her previously soft edges.
The journals also divulge, little by little, the details of Trace's dreadful childhood, which is hallmarked by ritual abuse in the name of religion -- namely, Loretta believes Trace is possessed by a demon and in need of exorcism. What is exposed and what is true, however, might be two different things. This is where the issues of reliability and deception begin to butt heads. Kimmel cloaks Trace's journal writings in the context of psychological study. Trace is a fan of James Hillman, the father of archetypal psychology, who popularized the "acorn theory," which posits that there is an individual image that belongs to your soul and creates a unique calling for your life, a daimon that "wants to be seen, witnessed, accorded recognition, particularly by the person who is its caretaker." This admiration for Hillman stretches throughout the novel, so that all of Trace's memories and actions take the shape of case studies. She becomes a type -- which may well be Kimmel's point, if not the most successful way to shape a character.
There's no question Kimmel has been influenced by the work of Hillman, and there is great eloquence in her writing that suggests a deep understanding of what Hillman has spent his career canvassing. But to the extent that this creates believable fiction, it is hard to say. Because Trace knows the subject so well too, her entire life becomes the stuff of myth and dream analysis with no solid ground for the reader to stand on. From a forensic standpoint, it's hard to find the clues to the truth of Trace's existence. Whether or not she was tortured is just one question, but when the reader realizes that the story may be entirely of the character's internal creation, even the most mundane scenes are thrown into flux.
"Iodine" is still a compulsive read, mainly on the strength of Kimmel's ability to deliver this mad character into human form. Time, space and knowledge collapse around Trace, and watching her work her way through her own thoughts is captivating in its sadness. Here is a monster who walks among us, who has the facility to understand her symptoms but is powerless to stop them from manifesting. Is Trace crazy? Is there something medically wrong with her? Is she merely a pathological liar?
That "Iodine" is that rare psychological thriller that is actually psychological makes for an intellectually stimulating experience, if one that fails to deliver entirely on its initial promise. Kimmel reveals the answers to Trace's various maladies through a twist ending and a few too many "what you didn't know" scenes that undercut the sizable equity of trust the author has created. These aren't paralyzing missteps, only ones Kimmel needn't have made, as "Iodine" is a novel that stews in ambiguity and doesn't require a conventional ending to satisfy, only a consistent one.
Tod Goldberg is the author of "Living Dead Girl," "Fake Liar Cheat" and "Simplify."