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Twisted sisters

June 01, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg

Frozen-yogurt shop employee Jonathan is oversmart and underemployed, and very early on in the novel "Girl Factory" by Jim Krusoe (Tin House: 196 pp., $14.95 paper) we realize he's also not quite right. After he learns about a hyper-intelligent, military-bred dog at a local shelter, he determines that he will be the one to rescue the animal: "I went back inside to find a jacket, and it was really more as an afterthought than anything that I took along a crowbar, slipping it up my sleeve so as not to alarm anyone."

His trip to the shelter ends in disaster, but Jonathan escapes notice and returns to his quiet routine, doing nothing more exciting than walking to his job at Mister Twisty. His boss, Spinner, is the only person he might (at a stretch) call a friend. Jonathan is a good employee. He doesn't mind not being allowed into the basement, which seems to emit a powerful hum. But one day, alone with the key, he discovers Spinner's secret: young women in a state of suspension, floating in a yogurt-based life-sustaining fluid.

Life-preserving yogurt bacteria? A modern-day Frankenstein selling low-fat desserts? Jonathan, who interprets his surroundings through metaphors that burst unhinged with style -- each suspended woman was "like a helpless museum-goer struck by a paralyzing gas that had been pumped into the ventilation system as part of a million-dollar robbery exactly at the same second she was standing there in front of a painting" -- may be the perfect hero for this surreal world.

But he is hardly a reliable narrator, and there are hints of fissures in Jonathan's tale-telling. When Spinner explains his project, it's with the fullness and detail of a Bond movie supervillain. Each time Jonathan talks to the Captain, a neighbor, he stands silently and hysterically immobile, flashing back to a chronically unlucky past. Jonathan isn't all there, clearly, but what exactly is missing?

Jim Krusoe pulls off a balancing act between science fiction and subjectivity in this playful, funny novel. And he makes sure you'll never look at Pinkberry quite the same way again.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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