Like a Borgesian labyrinth, with other stories thrown in, including a laughably convenient introduction of magic realism, it is impossible to know what to take seriously--or "jocoseriously," to paraphrase another of Atkinson's influences: the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In her third novel, much of Atkinson's humor is incidental, even parenthetical. (We are told in passing, for example, that Effie's dissertation is called "Henry James: Man or Maze?") She is at her best when introducing her eccentric characters, such as the elderly Professor Cousins, who is sometimes lucid, sometimes not. "As with anyone in the department," Effie explains, "it wasn't always easy to distinguish between the two states. The university's strict laws of tenure dictated that he had to be dead at least three months before he could be removed from behind his desk." Professor Cousins, like the author, enjoys word games along the order of those in Alice in Wonderland, and Atkinson's use of Scottish idiom comes to function as a sort of word game. She also brings in a few killjoys (a militant feminist, a militant Christian, a literary theorist) to complicate an already loopy narrative and to spike the punch.
Janice smelt of piety and coal tar soap. She had recently become a Christian, a neophyte of a student Christian fellowship whose members roamed the corridors of Airlie, Belmont and Chalmers Halls looking for likely converts (the afraid, the alone, the abandoned) and those who needed to use the Bible to fill in the spaces where their personalities should have been.As Emotionally Weird develops, Atkinson relies more and more on the postmodern gag of characters commenting on the unfolding action. There is no telling how she finally draws these disparate threads onto a single spool, but in the end, even the slightest subplots are neatly tied up and the most transient characters accounted for. --Regina Marler