A Review of Jessica Hagedorn’s Toxicology (Viking 2011).

A Review of Jessica Hagedorn’s Toxicology (Viking 2011).

I’ve been thinking about the best way to review Jessica Hagedorn’s newest work, Toxicology, which, in some senses, is admittedly a major departure from her previous fictional publications. The two major characters are Mimi Smith, a budding filmmaker, looking to finance her second production and Eleanor Delacroix, a famous writer and octogenarian. The novel’s title refers to the fact that pretty much all of the major characters are drug addicts of varying types and tastes. It’s hard to necessarily like any of the characters, but Hagedorn is particularly adept at making them unforgettable. Eleanor, in particular, is both curmudgeonly and uproarious. The novel is also very metafictive in the sense that both Eleanor and Mimi are aware of their status as artists. I couldn’t help but thinking that this novel seems to build off of the Bret Easton Ellis school of urban ennui and aimlessness, especially as it seems as though political art doesn’t have an urgency or power in this moment of social media and facebook. The novel opens with the death of Romeo Byron, a clear doppelganger for Heath Ledger; everywhere there is a frenzy over that death, as it might be catalogued and conveyed through all possible media outlets and internet sites. The Olsen twins, PerezHilton and TMZ are all freely referenced. The novel’s plotting is probably the least of its concerns, but if it does move forward, it is because Mimi seriously needs financing for her new movie and Eleanor is rich without anyone to really dote upon. Given Eleanor’s queer status and her particularly interesting take on her arts as espoused through interview clips, I couldn’t help but think of her as a version of Gertrude Stein, had she lived to 80 and resided in New York City after 9/11.

One of the most interesting discussions that occurred about the novel (over facebook no less) was over the ethnic backgrounds of Mimi and her cousin, Agnes. Various reviews point to Agnes’s and Mimi’s backgrounds as at least part Filipina, but it’s hard to actually discern this status based upon the details given in the narrative itself. We know Agnes was born in St. Lucy’s Eyes, that she lives in a place called General Johnson City as a child, but her status as an illegal immigrant seems more allegorical than specific. Given the strong ethnic minority narratives and ethnic narratives of her previous fictions, Hagedorn’s move here is interesting and certainly bears more discussion. Race does have an intriguing presence in terms of Eleanor’s backround because we find out that she is indeed part Mexican. Her relationship to this ethnic background is fairly tenuous though and only really shines through in a volatile friendship with another artist, Felix Montoya, in a period of time that see’s her visiting Mexico and engaging in an affair with a married woman, who will later become her lifetime partner, Yvonne Wilder. As the novel shifts more and more to Eleanor’s story, we’re right their with her sassy, drug-induced persona and yet, it will be Violet Smith, Mimi’s daughter, who will actually get the “last” say of the novel, perhaps Hagedorn’s nod to the apathy of the generation growing up under the guise of internet technologies.

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Nice review! Yeah, I'm not quite sure what to make of this novel, either. I hadn't thought of Romeo Byron as Heath Ledger. I thought of the other Romeo in her Dogeaters instead. I'm trying to make sense of Eleanor in particular since it seems like she is ultimately the biggest character in the novel, surpassing even Mimi, who as you say seems to be the backbone of the novel with her drive to get funding for her movie. Also, why are you having conversations about this novel on Facebook? :O
I don't know... seems to be a nod to Heath Ledger if you ask me.. why Romeo Rosales? Rosales never even makes it! =)

better having conversations about books than not, don't you think? =)