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'Heredity': The Wild Child


"Heredity is overrated.'' That, at least, is the opinion of Elizabeth Mann, the troubled young American whose genetic legacy is the subject of Jenny Davidson's first novel. Elizabeth, like most of the women in this brashly implausible book, wants to have a baby. What she doesn't want is to pass her family's genes to another generation.


An impossible conundrum? Not in the age of Dolly and Clonaid. And Elizabeth has apparently found a way: while visiting an obscure museum on her freelance job doing research for a London travel guide, she stumbles upon the skeleton of the notorious criminal Jonathan Wild -- ''the Al Capone of the 1720's'' -- whom she regards as something of a kindred spirit. Given her connections with the medical profession (both her father and her married British lover are fertility specialists), the solution to her problem thus becomes clear: she will collect Wild's DNA from the skeleton, wheedle some high-tech fertility magic from her conveniently situated lover and then act as surrogate mother to Jonathan Wild's clone. What could be simpler?

Obviously, we're not dealing with straightforward realism in ''Heredity.'' Exactly what we are dealing with, however, is not so easy to say. Davidson adopts her basic scenario from the world of topical farce -- that anarchic place where writers like Fay Weldon and Peter Lefcourt make their hay -- but her tone and main character originate in a territory far less broad and breezy. There is bitterness in the fictional cosmos of ''Heredity,'' as well as that enemy of all farce -- moral and psychological complexity. As a result, the novel has an identity crisis as acute as the one neo-Wild himself would face if he ever saw the light of day. Giving birth to Jonathan Wild's clone is a jarringly cartoonish notion living in a world of hard and realistic troubles.

The extent of those troubles is evident from the very first words of the novel: ''I hang up the phone one afternoon in early June and consider my options. I can kill myself. I can kill my father. Or I can simply disappear and move someplace nobody will even think of looking.'' That someplace turns out to be London, where Elizabeth promptly hops into bed with her father's former protege, the unfortunately named Gideon Streetcar. And while we never learn the content of the call that precipitated her flight across the Atlantic, we do get plenty of hints about the corrosive nature of Elizabeth's relationship with her father.

Richard Mann, widowed but now remarried and living in Connecticut, is a celebrated doctor. Elizabeth hates doctors, and is even thinking of writing a book called ''Awful Doctors I've Known.'' Elizabeth refuses to contact Dr. Mann once she's in London. She also has a suggestive history of self-mutilation, alcohol abuse and unprotected sex with strangers. And now she's interested in birthing a clone because cloning ''gives you the freedom to raise offspring with nothing of yourself in them.'' Or, one might add, nothing of your father.

It doesn't take much detective work to come up with a prime suspect in the case of Elizabeth's self-hatred, at least for anyone who's read the required texts of contemporary American family dysfunction. To Davidson's credit, though, she doesn't rely on the more customary forms of child abuse to account for her protagonist's behavior. Nor does she make Elizabeth into one of those downtrodden but courageous abuse victims familiar from a hundred inspirational novels of recovery. Quite the opposite: one of the novel's most refreshing aspects is Davidson's steadfast refusal to invest Elizabeth with the base-line likability that American readers seem to demand in their fictional heroines. Elizabeth is moody, foulmouthed, untrustworthy and seething with trivial prejudices against everything imaginable. (''I hate umbrellas,'' she declares at one point. ''They make me want to punch somebody.'') She's not above cheating on her lovers, rummaging through other people's underwear drawers and (worst of all) forcing her dates to eat at McDonald's.

She's also smart and introspective, which is what makes the whole Jonathan Wild part of the plot so problematic. We can accept, perhaps, Elizabeth's initial attraction to the cloning idea as a suitable if loopy manifestation of her own perpetual state of rebellion. More difficult to believe is her ready acceptance of Gideon's terms for performing the medical procedure -- namely, that he will implant the Wild clone only if she permits him simultaneously to implant two of her own eggs fertilized by his sperm. And when they set this plan in motion without a single discussion of what would happen in the likely event of Elizabeth's becoming pregnant with Gideon's child, we know that the author's agenda has taken control of the novel. Elizabeth and Gideon have been reduced to instruments of their creator's thematic design. Credibility -- not real-life plausibility, which is irrelevant in novels, but credibility within the context of the work's own universe -- is shattered.

FORTUNATELY, the novel offers enough incidental pleasures to carry us past this serious roadblock. One of the more inventive subplots involves Elizabeth's discovery of an unpublished memoir by one of Jonathan Wild's several wives. (A fondness for coincidence is something else Davidson imports from the world of farce.) The manuscript, while not entirely convincing as an 18th-century document, nonetheless comments cleverly on the novel's recasting of the classic coming-of-age motif as a struggle between warring impulses of self-perpetuation and self-annihilation. And since Elizabeth is an admitted addict of expert knowledge, the book is laced with veins of fascinating minutiae about grave robbing by early anatomists, the mechanics of in vitro fertilization, even the pathology of syphilis.

In the fine tradition of expatriate novels, moreover, ''Heredity'' is full of ironic grace notes about the peculiarities of life on the other side of the Atlantic. ''I've stopped asking for tea without milk,'' Elizabeth notes. ''The English brain can't process this request'' -- an observation as pithy as it is unaccountably true. And on a meeting between Gideon and his formidable father-in-law: ''While I don't pretend to have mastered the protocol that governs the British male use of first and last names, it's clear that if these two were chimpanzees, Gideon would be dropping to the ground and adopting a posture of submission.''

In the 21st century, apparently, it's the Americans who will be the jaded observers of British innocence and absurdity, rather than the other way around. So much for the heredity of Henry James.

Gary Krist's most recent book is a novel, ''Extravagance.''

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By Jenny Davidson.
231 pp. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press. Paper, $14.


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