NEW PEOPLE, by Danzy Senna. Riverhead, 229 pp., $26.
We can’t help but be captivated by the women at the center of Jane Austen’s romantic roundelays, even as they stress-test our patience with them. Elizabeth Bennett exasperates as she asserts the twin attributes proclaimed in the title of “Pride and Prejudice.” The eponymous protagonist of “Emma” is an overbearing, self-aggrandizing and presumptuously manipulative brat; we find ourselves looking forward to her comeuppance.
It says a great deal for “New People” — Danzy Senna’s martini-dry, espresso-dark comedy of contemporary manners — that its compound of caustic observations and shrewd characterizations could only have emerged from a writer as finely tuned to her social milieu as Austen was to hers. So it’s only fitting that its principal character is as infuriating, willful and challenging to a reader’s sympathy as Emma or Elizabeth.
Her name is Maria Pierce, a brilliant, if somewhat brittle academic in the throes of writing her dissertation on the 1978 Jonestown massacre. She’s also in the throes of preparing to marry Khalil Mirsky, a Seattle-born, Brooklyn-based tech wizard and fledgling entrepreneur she met while they were students at Stanford University. They are both biracial, sharing the same age and light-brown skin and striking features — though Maria’s mixed-race origins are more speculative since she was an adoptee raised by a single African-American woman, the witty, acerbic Gloria. Nevertheless, as “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom,” Maria and Khalil have drawn the interest of a documentary filmmaker who wants to chronicle the relationship of these multicultural paragons referred to as “New People.”
Despite the impending nuptials, Maria’s wandering eye avidly takes in another African-American man known to us only as “the poet,” whom Maria perceives as being anything other than a “New Person.” He is, instead, “old school — a brown-skinned black boy with a shaved head, a scar in his eyebrow. He has the body, the skin, the face that cabdrivers pretend not to see, that jewelers in midtown refuse to buzz inside.” That her infatuation is unrequited doesn’t stop Maria from stalking the poet to his Greenwich Village apartment building where she inadvertently buzzes the poet’s neighbor — a frazzled white woman who mistakes Maria for her nanny, hands off her Asian baby and leaves before Maria can explain.
This is a set piece of excruciating and uproarious misperceptions in a novel artfully strewn with them. Indeed, Maria and Khalil’s college romance, recalled through flashbacks, was sealed by a more deliberate deception: She pretended to be a white racist fraternity member anonymously threatening Khalil’s life by phone.
It’s awfully hard to be sympathetic with Maria at times like this, or when she’s attacking a white college boyfriend for what she perceives as his presumptuousness or during awkward run-ins with her future husband’s friends and family members. During a clamorous encounter with a self-defense classmate who turns out to be a Scientologist, Maria is moved to recall her mother’s description of her as having “that particular rage of the light-skinned individual.”
We may not always like Maria. Yet, as with many a complex heroine of classic comedies-of-errors, we somehow keep faith with her struggles to reconcile her myriad convolutions and warring emotions. Senna, whose previous work in fiction (1998’s “Caucasia”) and nonfiction (2009’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) probed deeply, delicately and at times painfully into interracial romance, presses this inquiry with cool precision and warm perceptiveness in “New People.” The book doesn’t pour cold water on one’s expectations for a better, more tolerant world. In fact, it implies that world has, to a great extent, already arrived. Brave new worlds sometimes emerge when you’re not ready for them; whether in a stranger’s apartment or in your own, too-human heart.