“Torn from today’s headlines” usually signifies trash art, a cash-in, or worse, so it’s something of an inauspicious beginning when the novel Toxicology kicks off with the death of “Romeo Byron,” a Heath Ledger stand-in. Things get worse when another character is described as a hoarder, an affliction which apparently affects one in four fictional Americans from media written since 2009. But that disposable pop feeling ends up being the point of Toxicology, which gleefully wallows in its trashiness.
The two main characters are neighbors: a filmmaker in her 30s, Mimi Smith, and a famous queer novelist in her 80s, Eleanor Delacroix. Based on their mutual love of cocaine, they strike up a friendship. Both have seen their creative output sacrificed to chaos in their personal lives, but minor, somewhat positive crises at the book’s onset trigger them to take small steps toward working again. Cocaine is at the heart of most of their decisions, yet Toxicology never descends into a drugged-out morality play. It’s simply part of who they are, for better or worse.
Jessica Hagedorn’s writing also takes on a disjointed, clipped tone, mimicking fractured thought and speech. It only settles into distinct clarity in the occasional text messages between Mimi and her daughter, which substitute broken language for broken sentences. Eschewing description in favor of psychology effectively maintains the narrative momentum when the trifle of a plot proves insufficient. Even an apparent murder mystery serves to illustrate the characters’ creative process more than anything, which is charming and narcissistic in equal measure.
Toxicology also benefits from ending much stronger than it began, using not one, but two perfect-fit gimmicks to tie everything together. A magazine profile of Eleanor finally gives a more physical description, in addition to providing a literal framework for her life, while excerpts from her work offer the literary framework. The pieces all fall into place; Eleanor’s description of writing as “exquisite agony” describes the book’s characters as well as how Toxicology reads. It travels from tired premise to thematic congruence over the course of 200 breezy pages—no small achievement.