The first chapter (after a Preamble and an Addendum to Preamble) of Kira Henehan’s eccentric debut novel opens with Finley, a yellow-eyed amnesiac investigator, laying out the terrain: “It was all over gravel, but better than the last place. There was all over swampland and crocodiles.” This baffling and barely grammatical description sets the tone for Henehan’s absurdist detective novel, which takes place in a sort of nowhere landscape out of Beckett.
Finley chronicles the vicissitudes of her assignment—issued to her by Binelli, the ringleader of her reconnaissance unit—to investigate the puppets of one Professor Uppal. Alongside her colleagues Murphy and The Lamb, whose own assignments don’t seem to link to hers in any logical way, Finley gains access to Professor and Madame Uppal, as well as the Uppals’ luminous daughter, Odille, and her cunning artiste boyfriend, Rogan, whose latest gimmick involves “framing” people—literally creating frames in which people’s images are fixed. Wherever the team’s madcap detective work takes them, the investigators invariably end up at Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn, a bookstore cum vintage surfing memorabilia museum, which “unlikely seeming as it seemed, [always] seemed to be exactly the same place.” Fueled by Tiki Ty’s infamous shrimp cocktail, Finley writes the detailed report that serves as the text of the novel (with the occasional interjection from her colleagues).
Although they are ostensibly working, Henehan’s characters are constantly at play: whether cavorting on rooftops, stage-acting, or investigating puppets. But the high stakes attached to their clowning are implied early on. When Binelli abruptly appears in the novel for the first time, Finley and Binelli engage in a “brief but meaningful” standoff. After pronouncing one another’s names, they fall into tension-filled silence: “I can win any contest involving silence or stillness or maintaining a straight face. I once, presumably out of some heart-felt anger, maintained a silence for so long that I forgot who I was. With speech went character, with character memory, with memory me.” All of this suggests a certain dramatic weight underpinning the slapstick capers, a larger meaning beyond silliness for silliness’s sake.
Henehan is similarly at serious play with language: employing Francophile quotation dashes, Winnie-the-Pooh-style capitalization of Very Important Concepts, and crazy-making syntax. She clearly delights in the piquant turn of phrase, spinning marvelously riotous prose. Mulling over the provenance of a platter of cured meats—was it prepared by Madame Uppal or Odille?—Finley declares the groggy Madame Uppal to be “in no condition to prepare a sumptuous feast of anything except perhaps an assortment of leftover medications.” At times the hilarity becomes a bit too much, however, and at its weakest Henehan’s narrative is more self-amused than genuinely amusing.
Henehan borrows from the uncanny (doppelgängers; puppets) and the absurd (Beckett; Ionesco) to great effect, but also shares some of these traditions’ foibles. Orion gestures to, without casting any light on, existential questions—questions that are suggested rather than clearly posed. We get the impression that Henehan is driving at something larger, but her narrative wanders drunkenly off toward some hazy vanishing point of meaning, leaving behind a dreamy and sometimes maddening trail of antics.