By Collin Mitchell
Breaking the mold is a difficult thing to do and no one captures the difficulty of this hardship better than Lillian Breaker, the consciously wayward protagonist in Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Nothing to See Here.
As a teenager, Lillian is ambitious enough to get into the exclusive Iron Mountain, “a fancy girl’s school hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere,” but at twenty-eight she’s living in her mom’s attic, working two grocery store jobs, and smoking a lot of weed. So, what’s her problem? Her best (and rich and beautiful and scheming) friend, Madison Billings. If this novel isn’t about fate and class, family, the haves and the have-nots, then it’s about friendship and its exploitive little schemes.
When we meet Lillian, she’s received a letter (it’s 1995) from Madison Roberts (married to a senator, of course) asking her to come to Madison’s Tennessee estate. She has a favor to ask. This is rich considering that fifteen years before, Lillian was expelled from school after taking the fall for Madison’s cocaine stash. Her dad paid a tidy sum to Lillian’s mom and Lillian went back to public school, cleaned houses, and started “hanging out with idiot boys and girls who had access to weed and pills.” Lillian recalls from the fateful evening her bleak future was sealed “a strange feeling, to hate someone and yet love them at the same time.” Considering their history together, Lillian’s commitment to Madison is one of the harder aspects of this novel to grasp. But perhaps that’s the point about money and power. When you don’t have either, where else are you going to get some except from the people that do?
Lillian’s willingness to see things through a hazy ethical lens is where a lot of the novel’s humor percolates. She’s a grifter, somewhat reformed, and has no qualms about it. “I wasn’t destined for greatness,” she says in her woeful introduction. “I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.” More often, though, she doubts her abilities and Wilson paints a bleary yet gently cynical picture of codependency : “I tried to think of a time when I hadn’t done what Madison had asked me to do. That time did not exist.” Beauty and money filtered into a friendship is a hard thing to outmaneuver.
Madison’s favor comes in the form of ten-year-old twins Bessie and Roland, products of Senator Jasper Robert’s previous marriage. After their mother dies unexpectedly, Lillian is asked to “make sure they’re safe and they don’t do anything crazy.” Since Jasper is up for secretary of state, nothing can be out of the ordinary. The catch is (there’s always one with Madison) the kids catch fire. Flames crawl up and down their skin when they’re agitated, and it’s totally wild and totally strange. Lillian is given the title of “governess,” paid handsomely in clothes and all-you-can-eat pizza and charged with the task of keeping the kiddos out of sight until Jasper is safely confirmed. She does her best (there’s a first time for everything) and it pays off: the kids trust her, and Lillian begins to accept herself and her life a little more.
Like Wilson’s 2011 novel, The Family Fang, Nothing to See Here approaches the idea of family with a wry bend. All the characters drolly accept the fact that two kids catch fire, and this works well to address the weightier issues of ambition, parenting, and money with a light touch. “I don’t know why,” Lillian says, “with these demon children bursting into flames right in front of me, their bad haircuts remaining intact was the magic that fully amazed me, but that’s how it works, I think.” And Lillian finds in the kids a reason to make a rebound and get back something she lost. Early on it’s clear how things are going to shake out: “I knew it wasn’t my home. And it wasn’t their home. But we would steal it. We had a whole summer to take this house and make it ours. And who could stop us? Jesus, we had fire.”
But what isn’t clear is what it is that Lillian wants. At times we get the sense she’s going to flip things on Madison, get her revenge, and at others she reverts back to being her biggest, albeit emotionally scarred fan. “If I failed spectacularly at this task, that would be the end of things with Madison. I’d never get to visit her in the White House. It’d be like we never met,” she says. It’s maybe not so strange that we want Lillian to get something big out of Madison (and she does ) but true to form, Madison suffers little and there’s small satisfaction in that. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that shame is incapable of touching the rich.
But when your life has been up for grabs to whomever is willing to pay, maybe all you need is just a little reassurance. And some money. Money is always good.
Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.