Laughter in the Dark


A book guaranteed to have former lit majors everywhere reaching for their Norton anthologies, Peter Rushforth’s ambiguously titled Pinkerton’s Sister transpires over the course of one flashback-filled 1903 Sunday in the life of 35-year-old spinster Alice Pinkerton. Regarded as a madwoman by most of her snooty uptown New York neighborhood, Alice spends hours of self-imposed solitude in her “schoolroom,” poring over books and furiously writing manuscripts presumably never destined to see the light of day.

The setting may be the turn of the 20th century, but the mode is decidedly high modernist as Rushforth plants us firmly inside Alice’s head, deftly weaving fact and fantasy, past and present, literature and life. Eventually glimpses of narrative emerge from the psychic fog—Alice’s troubled relationship with her father, her years of treatment for (nonexistent?) mental illness, the mysterious disappearance of a childhood household servant. In the relative absence of plot, the myriad literary allusions take over, as classics like
Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray, and inevitably, Jane Eyre vie with the lesser-known likes of Charles Reade’s
Hard Cash for space in Alice’s cluttered mindscape. She clearly defines herself by these touchstones, although the effect on this reader at times resembled that of a song with an overfamiliar sample that makes you wish you were listening to the original track (a particular problem with the frequent invocations of Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays). In its way a work of literary criticism, Pinkerton’s Sister
overflows with Alice’s pearls of insight (“Part of the power of Hamlet lay in not fully understanding it”) as well as her snippy dismissals (on Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families: “It took all that time to read
Anna Karenina and he couldn’t even get the first sentence right!”). Other moments read like the ravings of an unhinged copy editor: “That hyphen in ‘unco-operative’ was one of her acts of rebellion against the dictates of Webster. This was a word that
needed its hyphen.”

If this Weird Sister finally proves an exhausting companion over the course of 700-plus pages, that’s less a consequence of the book’s length and repetitiveness than of Alice’s misguided embrace of literature as a substitute for life. We laugh along with her often hilarious skewering of philistine neighbors—recalling a musical performance by the child of a prominent citizen: “He sang with what could best be described as threatening sentimentality”—but mockery is a poor substitute for social engagement, and the laughter sticks in the throat when one pauses to consider the parallels between Alice’s stifling historical moment and our own. The book’s too-easy evocation of a bygone era’s feminism often rings hollow, but Rushforth’s peculiar opus speaks to the 21st century by acknowledging the folly of escaping from politics into art, even when the creations in our heads seem so much more seductive than the inscrutable machinations of the world outside.