The plot of Joanna Ruocco’s dazzling new novel can be captured in two short sentences. Melba Zuzzo, one of the few remaining women in the small town of Dan, cycles to work at her local bakery. Later that day, she loses her job and her landlord tells her that she has been evicted. In outline, then, Dan is a fairly straightforward melodrama. ‘So this was what it is like to be unemployed,’ muses Melba towards the end of the novel, ‘navigating a man’s couch, poaching in the thick unclean daylight, as the man bustles about, hosting.’ Take a closer look at Melba’s words, however, and the picture begins to blur. The tense is unstable (‘was what it is’), and the verbs are as borrowed and ill-fitting as those in a poem by John Ashbery (‘navigating’, perhaps, but ‘poaching’?). What seemed to be a timely tale of redundancy and tenants’ rights in contemporary America is revealed, through these ongoing peculiarities of expression, as something odd and uncanny.
The major obstacle that keeps Melba from enjoying life in Dan, even prior to her unemployment and eviction, is the unhappy fact that she’s surrounded by a host of keen and controlling men, ranging from her boss and landlord to practically every small-town authority figure imaginable, including Mr Sack, the