The weather is certainly biblical in Jill Ciment’s funny, scary new novel, Act of God: three-and-a-half weeks of 100-plus-degree temperatures followed by 48 inches of rain in five days. And the glowing mushroom first spotted in a Williamsburg row house on a steamy August morning is soon spreading across New York City with a relentlessness that suggests divine judgment. But the only “act of God” here is the one invoked by Vida Cebu’s insurance agent as the cause of her “supermold” infestation, which means the company can refuse to cover the restoration of her home after the EPA orders it fumigated with acid. It’s human behavior that interests Ciment, and that runs the gamut from enjoyably ridiculous to surprisingly sublime in her tragicomedy of errors.
Vida, a reasonably successful stage actress, bought the Williamsburg house with the proceeds from her commercial for Ziberax,”the first female sexual enhancement pill.” She might have paid more attention to warnings about fungus in the basement if they hadn’t come from Edith, the rent-control tenant she’s been unable to get rid of, whose feckless twin sister Kat has recently moved in as well. The toxic stuff only comes to official attention after Vida installs a security system to catch the building’s former super, whom she suspects of letting himself in and going through her clothes while she was working out of town. Instead, the surveillance cameras find Ashley, a Russian au pair booted from her job as nanny for Vida’s agent after being caught feeding the kid Ambien; she’d copied Vida’s address from her employer’s Rolodex and figured she could squat there while the actress was on location. Clearing out Ashley and her belongings, the police spot another phosphorescent mushroom and call the biohazard squad, which promptly evicts Vida, Edith, and Kat as well.
Having crafted the sort of elaborate set-up that drives classic farce, Ciment keeps the cosmic pratfalls coming as the mold starts spreading and those exposed to its spores start dying. She’s a master at layering one catastrophic event on top of another until the pile-up is so awful you have to laugh. The novel’s prime example is the city-wide electrical blackout that sparks an intricate chain of consequences culminating in a doctored version of Vida’s Ziberax commercial that goes viral on YouTube. A million hits later, she’s unemployable, Ashley has ripped off good-natured, credulous Kat, and many more of her Williamsburg neighbors have been moved from their contaminated houses into an emergency shelter. By the time a cold snap finally kills the mold, their homes are burned-out shells and they’re threatened with relocation to Yonkers, a fate worse than death for any true New Yorker.
Ciment observes her characters’ delusions and meanness with a sharp satirical eye. Starchy, judgmental Edith, recently retired from a corporate law library, lives up to every cliché about librarians. Kat is her twin’s polar opposite, a flaky good-time gal who comes back to Brooklyn because she’s run out of options. Vera is a classic, narcissistic performer, Ashley her more ruthless doppelganger: a hard-bitten refugee from a dead-end post-Soviet life who sees no reason not to take every advantage of these spoiled Americans. Yet anyone who has read such earlier novels as The Tattoo Artist and Heroic Measures knows that Ciment is as compassionate as she is amused by her characters’ foibles, and she has a generous faith in the kindness lurking inside at least some of them.
Expertly juggling contrasting points of view, including a hilarious Greek chorus of online posts and emergency-shelter rumors, Ciment reminds us that people are rarely simple or predictable. Buttoned-down Edith has a secret love life. Feral Ashley ultimately commits a good deed, albeit one involving a lie. Kat emerges from a haze of self-indulgence and grief to form a community of survivors with her fellow Williamsburg exiles. Neither Ashley’s nor Kat’s good deeds are rewarded with a happy ending, however; it suits the novel’s tough-minded zeitgeist that Vida is the only character who lands on her feet (with a starring role on television, no less). And it suits Jill Ciment’s marvelous complexity as an artist that her two final scenes mingle horror, humor, and tenderness as they lead us toward a final image that perfectly captures the damaged grandeur of the human condition. That’s always her essential subject, whether she’s cracking jokes about it or plumbing its sorrows—usually both at the same time.