The Parking Lot Attendant is so drenched in postmodernist style that the actual story drowns beneath the weight. The novel opens on a ginger-scented island known only as B—; the conceit is that an unnamed narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager from Boston, is slowly recounting the mysterious and terrible events that drove her and her father to the island. If you adore the dark humor and twists and turns of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Erdrich, and Zadie Smith, you might find a lot to love here–or, like me, you might love those authors and still be left cold. Something about this book feels hollow, and while I love its stylish prose and enormous ambition, reading it was a chore and I can’t say I recommend the experience.
You can read my full review below.
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
- publisher: Henry Holt and Company (an imprint of Macmillan)
- publication date: March 13, 2018
- length: 240 pages
- cover price: $26.00
…I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere “It’s so pretty!” I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.
—The Parking Lot Attendant, page 73
In my day-to-day life, I don’t spend much time thinking about literary theory. I’m glad that some people do, the same way I’m glad that select groups of people pay close attention to power grids and internet connections so I can sit at my laptop writing this post. Someone should; it just bores me, personally.
I think that boredom is why my reaction to The Parking Lot Attendant, Nafkote Tamirat’s debut novel, is so negative. It’s a book that pays tremendous attention to literary technique to the point where everything else about it fades to the background. By 10 pages in, it felt like a book I’d assigned myself for my own edification rather than a book I was just reading in my free time. And that’s such a shame, because this is a startlingly unique novel, one I wanted to adore but that left me icy instead.
The Parking Lot Attendant centers on an unnamed first-person narrator, an Ethiopian American teenager in Boston. Her parents want the best for her, but they’re terrible at being parents; she excels in school but struggles socially and seems to sleepwalk through life. The novel starts on a ginger-scented island named B– (that we never know the name never stopped feeling pretentious) that is home to a community of Ethiopians seeking to build a new homeland; the narrator and her father live here, tolerated but disliked. As the novel progresses, the narrator works backwards through the events that brought her to the island, especially her friendship with Ayale, an older man beloved by the local Ethiopian community who is full of dangerous secrets.
The Parking Lot Attendant is at its best when it’s a coming-of-age novel. Tamirat’s unnamed narrator is funny, cutting, and sad by turns, and I wanted to spend more time with her. Unfortunately, even though the novel is told in first person and we never leave the narrator’s head, she still seems to vanish into the background, as if she were a documentarian rather than a participant.
That might have been okay had this novel not been so chaotic to begin with, but there are constant twists and turns that tangle up the threads of the plot without moving it forward, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t know where she stands mean we don’t know where anything stands. Most frustratingly, there are entire pages of dialogue in this book where I had no idea who was speaking, since dialogue tags like “he said” and “she said” are almost always absent.
The narrator and Ayale fight; they make up. The narrator and her father fight; they make up. The narrator’s mother flits in and out of her life. Other characters pop in and out for seemingly no reason, their every word feeling shoehorned into whatever mood Tamirat is trying to create in that chapter without feeling like something a real person would authentically say.
Worst of all, very mild spoilers ahead, the ending jumps so abruptly from typical teenage ennui stuff to straight-up murders, arson, suicide, and firing squads that I actually rolled my eyes. I just didn’t care, which is shocking to me, because I wanted so much to care. /spoilers.
There’s a strong possibility that what was hard to understand about this book for me would be obvious to a reader from an Ethiopian background. I want to be clear about that, since on one hand, I love that The Parking Lot Attendant is so chock-full of inside jokes and references to the Ethiopian diaspora. This is one of the most nuanced and cliché-free novels about immigrant identity I’ve ever read; there are also practically no white people in the book, which is refreshing, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to be there. I’m glad this book was able to be published without any obvious catering to a white American audience.
On the other hand, even those good qualities get lost beneath Tamirat’s studied, dense prose style. When I say it’s postmodernist, I mean really postmodernist, to the point where I thought about nothing else, and not in a good way–it felt like being stuck in a poorly taught and very dry Literature 101 class.
Every once in awhile, a particularly cutting sentence would jump out at me–one that got the heart of growing up and not knowing where you belong–and I’d get excited. Then, immediately, I’d be lost in another plot meander that went nowhere, and I’d get un-invested all over again. It’s maddening, because Tamirat’s talent for words is obvious, but her storytelling is remarkably uneven.
The Parking Lot Attendant is a frustrating brain-teaser of a novel, one that demanded a lot and only barely paid off. I hope it blazes trails and makes room for future novels with as much vision and ambition, but I won’t be revisiting this one anytime soon. 3/5 stars.
My copy of The Parking Lot Attendant came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.