Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Blame, by Michelle Huneven

By Lizzie Skurnick

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Lizzie Skurnick discusses fiction finalist Michelle Huneven's Blame (Sarah Crichton/FSG)

What does it actually mean to take responsibility? That’s the provoking question of Michelle Huneven’s arresting Blame, in which the hard-drinking, ribald history professor Patsy MacLemoore kills a mother and daughter driving home after a night of carousing, then spends the rest of the novel trying to free herself from the wreckage.

When we meet Patsy, the arch, appealing intellect that has heretofore greased the wheels of her career has already begun its downward slide, visits to the drunk tank and mysteriously withdrawn job offers taking the place of promotions. Huneven’s spare, cutting prose—the counter to Patsy’s liquor-fueled, expansive good will—is equally adept at depicting Patsy’s love affair with the drink, the petty humiliations of jail (as Patsy bleeds through her underwear, a guard sitting in front of a shelf of maxi pads tells her they’re out), her time in AA, and her resulting marriage, a well-intentioned attempt to gain stability that turns, in short order, turns into perfunctory fidelity.

Though the plot of the novel seems built for the familiar arc of tragedy and redemption, Huneven is far more interested in the limited fruits of exactly such well-intentioned attempts. That impulse to seek stability—not how one finds it—the author returns to again and again, mapping out battles of the psyche, its fruitless attempts to gain purchase, its misguided achievements, its frequent delusions.

However dark are the far-reaching effects of Patsy’s crime, however vivid her sufferings, Huneven is not interested in redeeming Patsy, but in using the tragic event to explore the far more provoking question of whether, in blaming ourselves for the obvious, we avoid our true responsibilities. Was Patsy a murderer? There is an official plot twist that allows Patsy to consider herself something less, if she chooses. But it’s not the true surprise. The surprise is to leave us wondering if redemption is something to seek at all.

Click here to read an excerpt from Blame, courtesy of LA Weekly

Click here to hear Michelle Huneven discuss Blame on WNYC's “The Leonard Lopate Show”

The NBCC awards ceremony is free and open to the public, as are the readings by NBCC finalists on Wednesday, March 10. To purchase tickets to the reception following the awards ceremony, click here.