Reviewed by Frank Fitzpatrick
by Kim Chinquee
October 31, 2022, Paperback, 140 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1736916902
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a pipette is “a slender tube used in a lab for transferring or measuring small quantities of liquids.” In Kim Chinquee’s slim, debut novel Pipette, the author examines a large mixture of themes through the eyes of Elle, a part-time lab technician working in the early days of COVID.
Similar to Chinquee’s well received flash fiction collection Snowdogs, the protagonist’s father suffers from mental illness and grows up on a farm with relatives in Wisconsin while finding solace in nature. “And then spring comes. A kaleidoscope of colors in my yard, a kaleidoscope of birds singing in the morning. A rainbow of sounds…” In addition, both books recount difficult relationships with abusive boyfriends or spouses. In Elle’s case, she believes that the conflicts she experiences with her on and off again boyfriend Hank stem mostly from politics. “We both know where we stand. I’m a liberal. He’s a registered democrat, but, like a lot of voters, it doesn’t mean that he votes that way…He’s glued to Fox News. I say, Can we change the channel? I turn the TV to CNN, where Adam Schiff talks about impeachment.”
A common symptom which appears to run rampant throughout all of Elle’s failed attempts at finding love is that everyone she encounters appears to be caught up in themselves through work or exercise. The fact that they mainly communicate electronically heightens their sense of isolation. After Elle is “introduced” by a friend to a doctor named Drew they “start following each other on Instagram, then Strava. After I send him my number he texts me right away. I have video chats with him in my office. He says he likes me. He appreciates me. He tells me he is suffering.”
Elle also seems to suffer from PTSD relating to her experiences with her father. “I have nightmares of my father coming back to me under disguise trying to rape me. I have dreams about dreaming, about trying to feel and then not feeling and then waking into going back into my dreams and trying to recount them. I spend hours awake, flat on my back, hearing the hum of traffic and a huge roar I can’t source. It’s like going back into a time zone.” She apparently suffered abuse from her ex-husband as well. “I have been having dreams and flashbacks of those days with my ex-husband. Baby in my arms. When I ran, the husband followed. Barefoot, in Biloxi.” Finally, she relates the following concerning another relative: “My uncle slept with me. He took me to the bedroom. Where my aunt slept with him for years. Was I complicit.”
Despite all of her personal and emotional challenges, Elle proves to be a resilient fighter who uses exercise to exorcise her demons. After strenuous practices in swimming, running, and bicycling, she competes in Half Ironman competitions, tries cross country skiing, and even takes boxing lessons, which serves as a metaphor for her growing resilience in combatting romantic disappointments. “I take up boxing and learn to roll with the punches. It’s a novelty to me, and I finally get the line now.” However, it is when COVID strikes that she meets her main challenge. “Tonight on CNN the governor’s brother talks about his COVID symptoms. Soldiers become celebrities, along with those in healthcare. I know about masks, PPE, gamma globulin, antibody testing. I worked in a blood bank during Desert Storm, collecting and processing products.”
Elle’s main profession is English professor, but she decides to apply to work part-time as a lab technician at a COVID testing site. “I want to be part of something that wants me to be part of something.” While her service is admirable, it only underscored for me her inability to function as well in the outside world as Elle feels most comfortable in the controlled antiseptic environment of the lab. “After I clock in and don my lab coat, it’s all about the specimens. I listen to the click and the whirl of the machines. Kind of in a rhythm. I feel my fingers in the gloves, wear the mask on my face, and the lab coat warms me. I pipette. Scan tubes, label. Process.”
Ironically, it is living in isolation in her newly purchased home rather than in human relationships that Elle finally finds some peace and sense of happiness. “Things I love about my new home: Keeping my life clean. Being organized. Being able to just find things. Eating meals at a table. Not always having the TV on. Cooking for myself. Doing my own laundry. Practicing self-care. Knowing where my clothes are. Being able to exercise whenever and in whatever ways I want. Being liberal. Writing at my desk. Reading. Being quiet. Feeling cleansed. Being silly with myself.” Finally she declares,” My place smells so delicious! Can you study my serology? Can you tell that I am free now?” Yes, it is quite obvious that she is.
Much like the germ-free environment of the COVID testing lab, I found the author’s use of short chapters made the book read more like a scientific journal than a novel. “Yesterday, Henry went skiing with the little snow that was left on the slopes. I went to get my hair done, where my stylist talked about her detox from pot. I went grocery shopping. Took back Joker. Came home with a headache I figured was from tension.” In addition, Chinquee should use sentences as transitions rather than using titles such as “Go to the Mall,” which only serve to make it seem more journal like. I do hope that Chinquee attempts another novel as she seems to possess all of the components of a talented author, but just needs to find a different mixture for more positive results.