“I used to spy on white people, blend into their crowd, let them think I was one of them, and then listen as they talked in smug disdain about black folks,” Danzy Senna wrote in “Mulatto Millennium,” an essay from the 1998 anthology Half and Half. “Then I would spring it on them, tell them who I really was, and watch, in a kind of pained glee, as their faces went from eggshell white, to rose pink, to hot mama crimson, to The Color Purple.”
Symptomatic, Senna’s new novel, hinges on a scene just like this: a party in which the young, unnamed heroine is an accidental spy in the house of honky. She’s bi-racial but assumed to be white, which means she ends up listening to the racially charged conversations among her Waspy boyfriend, Andrew, and his friends. But unlike Senna herself, this fictional narrator says nothing, silently absorbing the slurs. Later she leaves Andrew with no explanation; it costs her too much to delve into the messy details of her racial profile. She prefers to stay in the shallow end, never connecting too much with anyone. As she’s moving out, Andrew says angrily, “In all the months I’ve known you, I’ve never been able to remember what you look like. Isn’t that bizarre?” She responds wearily, “I’ve been here before.”
Senna’s heavily praised first novel, Caucasia, dwelled in vaguely similar territory. It told the story of Birdie, one of two young sisters divided along color lines when their black father and white mother split up. Counseled by her mother to “Be a presence that no one quite remembers,” light-skinned Birdie struggles against invisibility. Symptomatic, on the other hand, revolves around a twenty-something woman who has succumbed to blurriness. Raised in a bohemian multiracial family in Berkeley, she now finds herself alone in New York with a fellowship at a magazine where everyone makes assumptions based on her Caucasian appearance. She is friendless and unmoored until she meets Greta, an older office-worker who confesses that she, too, has a white mom and black dad.
“According to my parents, none of this was supposed to matter, these quirks of DNA,” our heroine tells us. “They were not supposed to change anything. But they did. As soon as Greta had told me, I’d felt an invisible wall fall away between us.” Although the two women have nothing more in common than their mulattitude, they become inseparable as Greta burrows into her life like a tick. She turns out to be needy and full of bitterness, constantly raging at both races—not so much a friendly big sister as a dark shadow. But by the time it dawns on the narrator that Greta is a crazy Single Half-White Female, the novel has already mutated into something approaching a noir thriller.
The sparse, elementary style of Caucasia worked well with its coming-of-age story line and netted Senna both a Whiting Award and a Library Journal citation as best adult book for young adults. But in Symptomatic, this simple language feels less satisfying, colluding in the narrator’s desire to maintain her numb, precarious equilibrium. Senna expertly evokes dread and paralysis but rarely lets the reader past them into her narrator’s head. Instead, she projects the book’s darkest emotions and actions onto Greta, creating a strange cautionary tale of a tragic mulatto, 21st-century-style. One of the narrator’s college boyfriends had regaled her with overripe myths of mulattos who “end up genius messiahs, or craven hybrid monstrosities.” Greta is this very monstrosity come to life—a half-caste driven mad by her mixed blood, or at least by her inability to find a comfort zone on either side of the racial fence. You have to wonder why Senna felt the need to embody psychic pain in the form of a middle-aged, working-class demon, a device that makes the narrator seem all the more vaporous and elusive.
While researching an article on a New Age cult, Symptomatic‘s heroine is reminded of her mother (now on a silent Zen meditation retreat), who taught her about homeopathy: “You have to give the body small doses of the problem, she explained, to remind it what it’s fighting against, and to trigger it into action.” Greta is that smidgen of poison, intended to rouse the narrator out of her slumber. Unfortunately, she remains trapped at the level of metaphor, never allowed to blossom into a full-bodied character. Symptomatic is frustrating in that way: It offers glimmers of deep promise yet leaves us stranded on the surface.