Emily Dickinson described poets as being able to distil "amazing sense/from ordinary meaning", and the same description can be applied to a good novel. Ben Dolnick's debut, Zoology, addresses the woes and discoveries abundant in any narrative about an 18-year-old spending a summer in a big city. Having been "advised" by the administration of his university to take a year out, Henry Elinsky ends up moving back in with his family. His mother has always been "a little private, a little fed up with everyone she knows. She'll sometimes let bits of complaints slip . . . but they just feel like spoonfuls from a bath." His father is a primary school music teacher given to optimism and embarrassing anecdotes. Henry's Uncle Walter also lives with the family - he's "a balder, skinnier, sadder version of Dad".
The prospect of a year out at home, helping with his father's music classes, becomes too horrifying to be borne. His older brother David, a trainee doctor in New York, invites Henry to stay with him and his artist girlfriend Lucy in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. A girl called Margaret, who lives in the same building, becomes Henry's first love.
It's hard to be charmed by or even engage much with Henry's feelings for Margaret, as these feelings seem part of a larger complex of neurosis and self-regard. Zoology's narrative appears to be based on the idea that a woman's role is to soothe pain and bring beauty to places. True, the narrator is an 18-year-old boy writing up his holiday diary. But in the world of Zoology, a woman who doesn't soothe pain ("I understood maybe the most important thing about Margaret and me: she could make me feel better but I couldn't do the same for her") or bring domestic order ("Mom brought purple flowers and put them in a vase by the kitchen window. She mopped the floor in my room, she threw out the magazines and mail that had been stacked all over the apartment, she lined the fridge with rows of Tupperware") becomes an anti-character.
David's girlfriend Lucy, for example, spends the novel buzzing with an incomprehensible hostility. We know that she is an artist; that her parents own the apartment that she, David and now Henry live in; that she's a fancy cook who puts squiggles of sauce under fish. Henry notes the short amount of time that Lucy spends in her studio. Henry mocks the art that Lucy makes - "Her parents put together a show for her in their house once . . . the paintings all had names like Never/Always and Music for Trilobytes." Mention of Lucy's former love, who died in a house fire, feels like text inserted to add depth to the reader's perception of Lucy. You know you're in trouble with a novel if you find yourself growing indignant on behalf of a character you would shudder at in any other context.
Henry gets a summer job working at the Children's Zoo in Central Park, chopping vegetables to feed the animals. Everyone he meets has a dream or a story to tell him. Ramon, a security guard, talks about his son, an infantryman fighting in the Middle East: "My son didn't decide we should start a war, but as soon as it got going, he made sure he was on the first plane over there, and you know what I call that, no matter whether I think George Bush is a great president or not? I call that courage."
Had it unfolded convincingly, there would be no objection to the loveliness of a community of oral wisdom settling around an anxious boy suffering from unrequited love. Margaret already has a boyfriend, so Henry sulks, obsesses, fantasises and self-pities in a way that makes an already unsympathetic character worthy of mild dread. A rabbit called Gandalf comes to play a part in Henry's life, as does a Nubian goat called Newman, which, freed by Henry, escapes the zoo and disappears on the night of a Manhattan blackout. But as I had already zoned out, it was difficult to care. True, there were glimmers throughout of the writer reorganising perception - Henry's reluctance to do his work at the zoo actually scares him: "By the ten thirty break, the idea of still having a full day ahead of me seemed like an emergency, something I couldn't possibly be expected to bear." And there is some fine writing - drops of blood in swimming-pool water look like "a pair of dark fish" when cupped in Henry's hands. But for this reader, Zoology holds too much ordinary meaning and not enough amazing sense.