Kimmel, heroine shine on borderline

Consider Madonna's sultry come-on from 1990s "Justify My Love": "Tell me your dreams. Am I in them?" That same year, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic Richard Howard told literature graduate students at Columbia University, "other people's dreams are boring, unless we are in them." If you stood in rural Indiana and shot an arrow through Madonna and Howard -- an arrow that arced past thunderheads and lighting bolts, to mysteriously ascend out of sight just as the bruised Midwestern sky was dawning -- you'll have some understanding of the trajectory of Trace Pennington, the heroine of Haven Kimmel's spellbinding fourth novel, "Iodine."

The novel is told through Trace's dream journals, her own narration and a third-person narrator. The few things we know to be true about Trace are told to us by the third-person narrator: It's 1987, Trace is a college senior, a scholarship student who squats in an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of Indiana. She gets by on her resourcefulness -- knowing the best truck stop for showering, the working pay phones, the cheapest barbecue restaurants -- and her dazzling intelligence. She is otherworldly beautiful, wide-eyed and luminous, with "jet grape" hair. The cool kids want to dress like her and professors are quietly surprised, and pleased, when she can finish an obscure quote from Freud or Jung. Trace knows her Freud and Jung; she lives Freud and Jung (and lives beyond them).

The other things we know about Trace we must discern because Trace can't be trusted. But we don't need to trust Trace. We're not after the truth of her life; we are after the truth of her story. This is a book about extreme storytelling, the kind of storytelling for which dreams are the narrative authority. We are all in Trace's dreams and -- to satisfy Madonna and Richard Howard -- her dreams are immensely interesting. Some will find this novel difficult and confusing; it is, just as dreams are difficult and confusing.

When reality blurs

It's not clear what happened to Trace before her senior year in college. I believe she was systematically abused by a man who eventually married her mother. I believe that her mother was complicit and her father was suspiciously clueless. I believe she found refuge in stories and books and eventually she started making up her own stories and then she ran away, presumably to learn what she needed to know to write her own books. I believe she had a best friend named Candy and a dog named Weeds.

Trace falls in love with and marries a professor named Jacob Matthias (she drops out of school to do so). It's clear that Jacob introduces Trace to a more materially comfortable life, to some stability and warmth and respectful intellectual communion. It's also clear that in the course of the novel Trace is visited by characters from the underworld, speaks to ghosts on the phone and in the front yard of dilapidated houses, loses all track of time (four years become four months) and believes that her husband has killed his ex-wife Rita (who, in fact is "in Santa Fe. She's a lesbian now. Goes by Ree."). Trace's brilliant ability to compose herself in keeping with "the prevailing collective narrative" allows her to live among "normal" people for quite some time. It isn't until she has a seizure and winds up in the hospital that we get an actual diagnosis from a doctor. She has "transient global amnesia," is "dissociative" and likely "hallucinates." Yeah, we know. But man, you should hear what's in her dreams.

The writing in "Iodine" is genius. Comic renderings of parties -- pretentious college kids demonstrating their love and obnoxiousness and equally pretentious professors demonstrating their civility and tedium -- are downright hilarious. Some moments -- feral animal attacks, rants about Nazis and why, specifically "hell is for children," to quote Pat Benatar, another '80s icon -- are pure terror. As Trace's memories come and go, so does the book's sophistication of language and insight. Whether in Trace's voice, her dream journal voice or the narrator's voice, the writing in "Iodine" is, at turns, fraught and hectic, and translucent and shimmering in its stillness. Ideas that would easily be dismissed around your office or neighborhood as absurd -- alien abduction or one's personal demon escaping one's body as an actual rabbit -- are for Trace, seriously possible, and so are rendered by Kimmel with a precise amount of gravity and tenderness.

What it takes to survive

Kimmel's agile intellect is also on display. She too knows her Freud and Jung (and Plath and Cheever and on and on), but the book doesn't show off Kimmel's deep education or Trace's. It's not a show-offy book. Much of Trace's brilliance (and I think this is true of Kimmel as well) lies in her conversational, natural, downright colloquial relationship with the material and the brains behind them. So the daughter of a stranger, a stranger who likely has never, ever heard of an "anima projection," transforms into an anima projection when her father gets home and "sticks" his pen to her. That Trace can use anima that way, that she can even think of it is so very Kimmel -- what Trace reads isn't just understood, but it is literally internalized.

Trace joins Kimmel's other heroines: Indiana girls who can handle a gun or a pool cue, who often carry the weight of their family history like stones in their shoulders and who manage either through dint of talent, imagination or faith to rise above their expected fate. Kimmel's other books are made from some of the same material: neglected children, sickening violence and dashing, attractive failed fathers. "Iodine" differs from Kimmel's previous novels in its daring form and in its ending, which is not as traditionally happy as the other books could be said to be.

Trace may not know that there's a difference between the truth of her dreams and the truth of her life -- she insists that "the underworld isn't under anything" -- and this inability may make her, well, crazy. But her ability to mix the salve necessary to treat her wounds -- part iodine, part '80s music, part Greek mythology, part animal instinct, sense memory and visions -- make her eerily trustworthy and endlessly readable.