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Redder Days coverIt’s a bit on the nose, really, a novel about a global pandemic and the weird rituals that pop up in its wake. Its post-apocalyptic cult’s bizarre aphorisms and daily devotions might stand in for all of our new fixations on masking and sourdough starters and Zoom meetings and Wordle. Sue Rainsford's Redder Days is so timely, and such an obvious take on our current reality, that it seems almost impossible to accept that it was actually written before the dawn of COVID-19. Rainsford’s pandemic—the vague, horrific, and surreal disease “red”—reads as an accelerated stand-in for climate change, and the commune’s rituals as examples of the ways in which misogyny and authoritarianism are inscribed on communities. This is a head-spinning work of exceptional depth and visceral beauty, although it suffers at times from a monochromatic voice and a mismatch between tone and subject matter, often emphasizing elusion over clarity even in scenes crying out for a simpler approach. It’s a book that I admired deeply even as I didn’t enjoy reading it all that much.

Cynthia C. Scott reviewed Rainsford’s previous novel Follow Me To Ground for Strange Horizons last year and posed the question, "Is it possible to enjoy a book without knowing what it is about?"—and now I'm here asking much the same about Rainsford's sophomore work. I’m not sure this was ever a book meant to be enjoyed, as opposed to experienced, pondered, and be unsettled by. It’s knotty, unpredictable, sparse and opaque, and it expects a lot from the reader without offering much in the way of guidance in return.

This is a maddeningly obscure novel, then, even for those of us who usually enjoy a heightened level of opacity in our fiction. It's a cliché to describe a book as a "fever dream," but I don't think there's any description more apt for this one, with its churning, brief chapters in which visions and journal entries give way to elliptical conversations and eruptions of violence. Told achronologically by a variety of narrators, it follows the rise and fall (or fall and further fall) of a cult led by a man named Koan. His commune, built on top of a smoldering abandoned mine as civilization fell to the dual onslaughts of climate change and the red pandemic, has now been abandoned by all of his followers except for young twins Anna and Adam, raised under his brutal care and now forced in turn to care for him in his old age. Anna, who keeps watch at night, is bold and forceful, while Adam, the diurnal twin, is sickly and questioning, abused by Koan as a child and now slowly losing his vision to an affliction that may or may not be related to red. Anna and Adam meet only at dawn and dusk to exchange “devotion,” clasping one another’s necks and reciting Koan’s scripture.

Prior to the collapse of civilization Koan was some sort of scientist who discovered early examples of "the Red," a disease that causes a kind of rash and mental derangement, and possibly other physical changes:

Biological ripples that spoke to an interior horror, to a particular kind of damage—that signaled we were now vessels for a very particular kind of rupture. We knew it was entwined, somehow, with the abbreviated timeframe—perhaps, a kind of cleansing. The planet, thus distressed, had found a new way to purge. But we did not know why every body it moved through it moved through like a storm. (pp. ix-x)

Like most things in the book, the disease of red is never explained any more than that. Rainford instead relies on vague references and poetic allusions to every shade of the color red that you can think of to inflame and engorge the reader's imagination.

This is a novel concerned to such a degree with interiority, both physical and mental, that it's sometimes difficult to tell what's going on outside of the characters. Those infected with red not only lose the boundary between their inner and outer bodies, but face the removal of restraint: the carnal overtakes the rational; physical and mental boundaries break down, rupture, and transform. Koan and his cult have devised a bewildering set of rituals and beliefs to survive and look forward to some sort of final reckoning they call “Storm.” This elaborate false consciousness obscures the outer reality of the world of the novel to such a degree that I can’t even really assure you that all of civilization fell, or if just enough did for Koan to assure his followers that it was a global collapse. Perception—the differences between seeing, knowing, and remembering, noumenon and phenomenon, problems with communication (sometimes literalized with blinded eyes and rashy mouths)—underlie all of the narratives to such a degree that one is never quite sure how much is misunderstanding by the twins (who have never known any world but the commune), how much is misdirection on Koan’s part, and how much on Rainsford’s.

What is clear is that Koan's rituals and religious beliefs are based as much on misogyny and patriarchal authoritarianism as they are on practical or theological survival.  Koan believes the pandemic is "not a matter of virus or contagion" (p. 39) but of sin and judgment. He is a hidebound conservative essentialist, a misogynist who reduces the disease to “a red substance making its way out of the body" (p. 71)—in other words, to menstruation. Boundaries, again: blood ruptures from interior to exterior, terrifying Koan with the precarity of, and misogynist disgust toward, female bodies—the condition of which now threatens to invade all male organisms as well. Koan’s abject disgust imbues much of the narrative, which is suffused with an uncomfortable sexual tension in almost every interaction, most of which takes place in one-on-one scenes: characters thinking in coded terms about impure thoughts that might bring on red, and perpetually overheating and dipping themselves into cooling water. Even the pre-pandemic flashback scenes share this approach, as when Koan's prime disciple Matthew remembers a time from his childhood when he wanted to suck his father's fingers, just to experience the secondhand feel of his sister's feverish blood pulsing.

In addition to her fiction, Rainsford is also an arts critic, and a very direct line can be drawn between Redder Days and an earlier essay, "A Luminous Index: Erotic Phenomenology of a Stain." The arguments made by Rainsford in this work regarding stains—that they are unintended, resistant, inadvertent evidence that the boundaries of a vessel have failed, and thus undermine notions of agency and order—inform her novel as well. Anna and Adam's mother, Eula, abandoned them as children, defining them through her absence and leaving them utterly under Koan’s sway. The stain she left behind on the floor the day she left is one of the core images of the novel (it was red, of course). In some ways she's the central character of the story, and her minimal presence is very telling in what kind of novel this is. Pregnancy, after all, is another blurring of internality and externality, and birth another rupture and bloody expulsion. The final section of the novel, “Caul” (in the sense of the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus), finally centers Eula as narrator in a stunning, brief confessional about her everyday frustrations with her body and deeply conflicted feelings about motherhood. It is the highlight of the book, in which Rainsford strikes an ideal balance between her tendency toward occlusion—that beautiful, elliptical style—and this novel's need to preserve the viscera of its most powerful, earlier parts.

One of Eula’s messages to her children—“living where we lived could feel like the tail end of a scream that kept going. The pitch always just the same, always at the exact same frequency.” (p. 252)—echoes a similar point from the beginning of the novel: “it hurt, the constant alert—the body taut where it had once been soft, calloused where it had once been smooth” (p. 3). These sorts of moment render it even harder to believe this isn’t a novel written in lockdown isolation. I worry it will get lost in the inevitable glut of actual pandemic novels, sitting in the unpopular liminal area that I, for one, typically love—more experimental and literary than most genre works, too fantastic for the MFA set. Even as the novel sometimes feels as if it's struggling against itself, story and presentation at bloody odds with one another, Redder Days—with its endless shades of red, scarlet, and carmine, violence, blood, and birth—is a rich text whose symbolism bears deep reading and pondering. Rainsford is an expert stylist and deserves credit for her lofty aspirations—she's an artist to watch, even if her art is not quite a joy to experience.



Zachary Gillan is a critic residing in Durham, North Carolina. He blogs infrequently at https://doomsdayer.wordpress.com/ and tweets somewhat more frequently at @robop_style.
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