Jill Ciment’s novel “Act of God” examines what happens when two 64-year-old twins confront apocalyptic catastrophe, fungal version.

Share story

“Act of God”

by Jill Ciment

Pantheon, 192 pp., $23

In the annals of great opening lines for novels, the first sentence of Jill Ciment’s “Act of God” has to rank as a classic: “The twins suspected it was alive, but they weren’t exactly sure if it was plant or animal.”

In “Act of God,” the author of “The Tattoo Artist” and “Heroic Measures” presents a fungal apocalypse as a barbed, melancholy comedy of manners. In a way, this Brooklyn-set tale is akin to Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Its surface farce is delectable, but all sorts of shadows and threats are hammering at the door.

Edith and Kat Glasser are 64-year-old twins who’ve wound up living together after leading strikingly different existences.

Edith’s view of former hippie Kat is more pitying than censorious: “Her poor delusional sister had always mistaken irresponsibility for daring, eccentricity for originality, obsession for intimacy.”

Kat’s take on retired legal librarian Edith is at the other extreme: “Why would she scrimp and deny herself during youth, with all its electric pleasures and titillating temptations, so she could eat well in old age?”

As it turns out, Edith had more of a life than Kat suspected — and Kat, when tested, is less feckless than she appears to be. But it takes a freakishly rapid-growing luminescent mushroom, soon to spread throughout their whole neighborhood, to reveal the deeper truths of their lives.

Ciment’s nightmare-comedy reads like an urbane spin on the Book of Job, written in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Flooding from Sandy, in collusion with an East River oil spill and a sweltering New York summer (“forty-eight inches of rain in five days”), is suspected as the cause of the toxic “Supermold.” And as HAZMAT teams appear on the scene, “Act of God” becomes an antic yet poignant study of who you become when you lose everything: home, belongings, treasured keepsakes, even the clothes on your back.

Lively secondary characters add to the book’s zest. The twins’ distracted landlady Vida Cebu, a Shakespearean actress who recently gained notoriety as the voice of Ziberax (a female answer to Viagra), ignores Edith’s warning about the glowing, expanding mushrooms in their house.

Vida’s excuse is that she was dealing with an 18-year-old home invader from Russia on a desperate quest to make it in supposedly opportunity-rich America. (She’s the most brittle, least satisfying comic element in the book.)

A key offstage character is the twins’ late mother, a sexually frank advice columnist who sounds like a combo of Ann Landers and Dr. Ruth. Kat is eager to package her mother’s columns in a book and donate the actual letters and replies to the Smithsonian before the mushroom can get to them.

Once the Supermold is rampant, however, very little goes as planned.

Ciment’s sense of absurdity is keen. Vida, dealing with her insurance company, is told some molds are viewed as “acts of God” (meaning no coverage) and others are not.

“Aren’t all molds acts of God if you believe in Him,” she protests, “or not if you don’t?”

Laugh-out-loud funny in its first half, the book grows more thorny and trenchant in its wit toward the end. Either way, from start to finish, it’s invigoratingly unpredictable.