Mona Simpson’s first novel, Anywhere But Here, was remarkable mostly for the narrator’s remarkable mother. Fitful, fretful, yearning, conniving, she seemed more like a headstrong, recklessly romantic older sister than the mother of a sullen 12-year-old girl she was dragging along on a pilgrimage from Wisconsin to Hollywood. In Simpson’s new novel, The Lost Father, the girl, Mayan Stevenson (called Ann in the earlier book), now a 27-year-old attending medical school in New York City, has inherited her mother’s romantic obsessiveness, though it has left her not headstrong but baffled. For daughter as for mother, happiness is always around the corner, anywhere but here. Mayan recognizes herself as one of those distracted children ”who lose their rings and their gloves, their keys, the same children who themselves get lost in department stores…They are the children who are waiting, in their hectic way, for something.”
What Mayan has chiefly lost is her Egyptian father, who abandoned her mother 20 years earlier, and what she has gotten lost in isn’t a department store but her own life. She’s insecure and self-disparaging, unable to warm up to any of a series of boyfriends. Instead she recedes into her dark apartment and dim medical books. Having little to go on but his name, Mohammed (or John) Atassi, and his history of compulsive gambling, she decides that finding her father is the key to retrieving all the lost keys of her life. She hires a couple of soft-boiled private eyes, who mostly turn up clues to their own incompetence. Finally, she begins spending all her time and money on her own haphazard detective work — combing phone books, ferreting out obscure Atassis, bolting to Racine (her hometown) and points west, and convincing everyone, including herself, that she has gone a bit loopy.
But she’s simply off on the standard moonstruck romantic quest. For the romantic, the unreachable grapes aren’t sour but sacred. Or as Mayan, the maundering narrator, puts it in the best sentence of the book: ”All you have to do to become somebody’s God is disappear.” And when her father is finally, deflatingly found, we get the other side of the romantic equation: ”And maybe being found was all it took to be mortal again.”
The trouble with The Lost Father is that, compared with other quest novels (including Anywhere But Here), its itinerary is pretty flat. We get long stretches of random detail, delivered in a painfully sincere, uninflected colloquial voice, and the narrative staggers from banality (”Even in a chain like Dairy Queen, the quality varied a lot”) to grammatical mayhem (”I was sad for how many different lives there were to live and we only got once”). Since the material is patently autobiographical, some indulgence is in order, but the book is full of passages that would earn a rejection slip from Dear Diary. The other characters aren’t sharply drawn, and the reader waits in the drizzle of trivial sentences for momentum, like a late bus, to arrive. It eventually does when Mayan goes to Egypt, getting a sexual detour — rapelike but apparently gratifying — from her cabdriver as well as glimpses of her father’s elusive, exotic past. And the rediscovered father, though a disappointment for Mayan, is a godsend for the reader — he’s caught vividly in his suave, defeated ambiguity. But there’s been too much woolgathering along the way; the book is salvaged but not saved. Half as long, it would be twice as good. C+