[Read the first part of Victoria's review here]
If Laird Barron wants a lesson in how to write rich, controlled and unencumbered prose he should read God is Dead (Picador, 2007) by Ron Currie, Jr. In fact, we all should. Published by a mainstream press and virtually ignored by the genre media, it is the finest debut on the Crawford shortlist. I began reading it without expectations, and it knocked me down. Fierce and violent in content, it is political and controversial, thematically challenging and gorgeously written, not to mention the best book I have read thus far in 2008.
The concept alone makes me giddy. God is actually dead. He died in a Janjaweed raid on a refugee camp in Darfur, sometime during 2004, having taken the form of a Dinka tribeswoman in order to go amongst His people. Omnipresent but hardly omnipotent, He was as powerless as anyone else to stop the suffering and pain around him, although He felt guilty and very sorry about it all. When death came, it came to Him as well. His corpse is subsequently eaten by a pack of hyenas, who inherit His all-knowingness (and incredible isolation) and spread the news of His demise around the world.
What follows is a series of aftermath stories, thematically linked but equally as capable of standing alone. (The American edition was subtitled "Fiction by Ron Currie, Jr," thus complicating the relationship between short and long form fiction.) In one, "Indian Summer," a group of college friends make a suicide pact in the face of the ensuing breakdown of order and society; in another, "False Idols," a psychiatrist battles against an epidemic of child-worship that has emerged to fill the God vacuum; and in another, one of the hyenas who ate God explains the horror of feeling everything. Finally, in "The Helmet of Salvation and the Sword of Spirit" East and West fight a war over diametrically opposed ontologies—Postmodern Anthropology, which is relativist, and Evolutionary Psychology, which is positivist. The stories nest into each other chronologically, but are otherwise (mostly) non-continuous. They’re vignettes, and character studies, and conjectures about what the world would do without its favorite crutch. Without exception, they’re excellent.
Currie has an extraordinary breadth and depth of voice. He can do tragedy and comedy, pathos and bathos, with aplomb and simultaneously, as here in "Indian Summer":
Rick counted one, two, THREE, and on THREE Ben and Manny blew each other’s brains out. I even giggled a bit, just before the room exploded with blood and smoke... We all stood there, beers in hand, smoke curling off us in little wisps. Everyone appeared shell-shocked, except for Rick, whose expression of grim calm emerged from the cloud rigid and unchanged. Chad, who’d been standing behind and to the right of Manny, looked like Jackson Pollock had used his Shipyard Brewing Company T-shirt to make a splatter painting. I’d taken Explorations in Contemporary Art the previous semester and we’d spent a lot of time on abstract expressionism, so I could imagine the descriptions in our textbook for this particular piece: Pollock, Jackson. Suicide. Brain on cotton, 2005. (pp. 39-40)
The passage is almost perfect, and worth quoting at length. It captures it all—atmosphere, character, fear and loathing—and it wastes nothing. There are no superfluous adjectives; everything is clean and has a function, from the hysterical disbelief of the narrator’s giggle, to the popular culture references, to the standardized form used to reference the Pollock-esque blood splatter. Currie makes it walk off the page.
His writing conveys what is both big and small in a narrative, in the sort of seamless prose that slides right through your skin. The previous short, "The Bridge," is a fine example. In it Dani Kitchen, barely eighteen and bathed in untainted, blessed confidence, witnesses a priest commit suicide by jumping from a bridge. The narrator tells us nothing directly about the priest, or his decision to die; the writing bears it all:
The priest lifted his eyes from the riverbed. For the first time that day, the sun passed behind a cloud, a phantom cloud out of nowhere, and the Earth dimmed, and Dani glanced over to the hills and saw the sky was empty, and she looked back and saw, on the pavement near the tall statie’s polished boots, something that would follow her to Carolina and beyond: laid out neatly, side by side, were the old priest’s hat and wire-rimmed glasses. (p. 34)
At first the passage has a biblical cadence, a transcendental holiness sustained by repetition of "and," which is rudely broken by the petty detail of the "tall statie’s polished boots"; then it leads us into that colon, which has a delicious fatefulness about it. We learn numerous things from the image that follows: that the priest is fastidious and neat, that even in dying he likes order, that he was willing to kill himself but he did not like to break his glasses or damage his hat, that even in despair he holds some things absolutely sacred.
Very few writers have the capacity to tell stories like this. Cormac McCarthy is one; Margaret Atwood is another. Ernest Hemingway said you could tell a heartbreaking story in six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." I’m not sure about that, but you can certainly tell one in six lines, as Currie demonstrates in "Grace":
I haven’t thought of you in what seems like a long time, but for some reason I do now. I see you knocking bottles off the coffee table with an angry sweep of your arm. I hear your voice from behind a locked door, screaming there’s no God, why can’t I just accept it like everyone else? I picture you crying so hard and so long your eyes swell shut. I wonder where you are, who you’re with, if you flinch every time he moves his hands, like you did with me. (p. 86)
Give me this fresh show-don’t-tell restraint over Barron’s verbosity any day.
Thematically the novel is complex and controversial, not because it manifests God as a woman and then kills Him, but because it engages with God as a presence and an absence, not as a deity. First, a being called God is alive and then, God is dead. But essentially this transition from one state to another doesn’t matter; it isn’t the turning point of the novel. The novel has no turning point. God is as much a presence when he is dead as he is when he is alive. In fact, who cares who, what or where the being called God is at all? Who cares if he was killed by Janjaweed, or eaten by a pack of dogs? Currie’s God is a red herring, a straw man. What matters is that there is a hole in people that needs to be filled. If you like, the hole itself is God and it is always there. The hyena who eats the body of the Dinka woman who was God inherits all of his characteristics, but he says:
"I am not your God. You’re as naked and alone in the world as you were before finding me. And now the question becomes: Can you abide by this knowledge? Or will it destroy you, empty you out, make you a husk among husks?’ (p. 111)
This intimates the central question of God is Dead. Not: what happens now that God is dead? But: what happens now we think God is dead? The concept of God has many roles to fill—He promises order, protection, meaning, restraint, hope, fullness, comfort, certainty and justification, not to mention instilling fear and providing us with someone to blame for our misfortunes. Without Him we would have to find something else to fulfill these functions—science, politics, anthropology, or even our own children—and maybe we would kill ourselves and each other, and loose our minds, along the way. Being faced with these possibilities through Currie's vision has an odd and discomforting effect. As you read you find yourself thinking the unthinkable: Thank god that God is not dead! Perhaps the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. So that while Currie has written a critique of human faith so wide-eyed and horrifying that you feel the tears come in, he has also written a hymn to godhead. It’s frightening, and provocative, and very, very good indeed.
I read Flora Segunda, Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog (Harcourt, 2007) by Ysabeau S. Wilce immediately after God is Dead. As soon as I saw the whimsical title page I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. Perhaps it was the insertion of the letter "k" into magical, an affectation that I associate with the silliest aspects of Neo-paganism, or perhaps it was the idea of an ominous butler, that sank the ship before we’d even sailed. Either way, Flora Segunda proved very difficult to get through. It didn’t help that I couldn’t figure out what kind of book it was supposed to be. Was it a work of whimsy, or of serious military and magical fantasy? Was it a bildungsroman, or an episode of pre-adolescent adventure? Was it a comedy, or a tragedy? The answer turned out to be none of the above, and all of the above at the same time. There is only one thing about which I am certain: Flora Segunda is a children’s book. I have heard it described as a young adult novel, and I set out reading it with that in mind, but it is no such thing. If I were to recommend it to an age group, it would be the 7-11 year olds rather than the 12-15 year olds.
Flora is the youngest member of the Fyrdraaca family of Crackpot Hall and, aged thirteen, is about to celebrate her Catorcena, the rite of passage that will see her become an adult. Her mother, Juliet Buchanan Fyrdraaca, is an army officer, the Warlord’s Commanding General and a stickler for family duty and rules; her father Reverdy Anacreon Fyrdraaca is a washed-up fighter who has turned to drink after a spell as a POW during the last war; and her older sister, Idden, is a prodigy with straight teeth and a prestigious military career ahead of her. Once upon a time there was another Flora Fyrdracca, a sister who died in infancy, and hence our Flora is Flora Segunda—doomed to be second best for all eternity. Worse still she is the black sheep of the family. All Fyrdraacas are soldiers, born to the gun, but not Flora Segunda:
But I do not want to go to the Barracks and learn to be a killer, a servant, a slave. To learn to follow orders, like Idden, and to learn to kill, like Poppy, and to learn to give everything for my country, like Mamma. Not me! I want to be a ranger, a scout, a spy. Rangers don’t follow orders; they slide around rules, scoot around the edges of the law. (p. 6)
So far, so good. Broken homes, career mothers and pacifism aren’t the stuff that fantasy is usually made of, and Flora’s irreverent bubbly voice is compelling. But from here on in it becomes clear that something is lacking from Wilce’s vision, and that something is a coherent, well-paced plot. Two strands develop independently. First, Flora meets and befriends her family’s exiled butler, an enfeebled house spirit called Valefor, who lives secretly in their hidden library. In order to free herself from household chores, Flora promises to help him resume his position and allows him to suck some of her life-essence to keep himself strong. Second, Flora and her best friend, the fashion-conscious Udo, attempt to save the life of a rebel and former ranger, the Dainty Pirate, after he is tried and found guilty as a traitor. The two stories do not meet and combine until the very end of the narrative, and nothing of significance happens in either until well past the half way mark. (I noted page 260 as the moment of lift-off.) Unfortunately, there is only so much narrative procrastination I can stand before boredom sets in; and I imagine my threshold is much higher than that of the average ten year old. Dare I say that the novel is just too long for its purpose?
Sadly, Wilce’s world-building isn’t up to scratch either and by the end of the novel it is difficult to know the political or actual landscape of her universe. She is at her best on a small scale, when describing the lost beauty of Fyrdraaca house for example:
I wandered in the darkness, through room after room, and saw nothing but decay and dirt. Piled furniture and cobwebby chandeliers. Wallpaper peeling off in long curling strips. Parquet floor so dirty that the dust was as thick as a rug. Sometimes there was evidence of earlier grandeur: an orangery, though the stunted trees were spindly and grey, their fruit withered to dry husks that crunched under my feet... A long echoing room, its ceiling held aloft by tall tree-shaped pillars... (p. 21)
But the big picture is not her forte. This much I was able to glean: the Fyrdraacas are venerable scions of the doddering Republic of Califa, a military dictatorship nominally ruled by the Warlord but actually under the control of the Huitzil Empire. The Huitzil have a culture and religion akin to that of the Aztecs, and Califa would appear to be an alternate California, so presumably the geography is akin to that of the Americas. But the difficulty is that Wilce thinks that naming places is tantamount to creating them, so that we get long lists of streets and zones—Zoo Battery, Pacifica Playa, Sandy Road, the Outside Lands—without the sense of place to back them up. A map would have been a blessing. Similarly, the past is a jumble of oblique references to wars and heroes. The rest is interesting but ill-explored: we get a tantalizing glimpse of the system of courtesies which Flora and Udo have to navigate in their daily lives, and of the workings of Grammatica, the word-based magic that underlies the story, but never enough to make it real.
Finally, I must admit that, although I grew fond of Flora and would like to hear more from her, I didn’t believe in her. She is simply unlike any other thirteen year old girl I have ever been, met, or heard of. Essentially, Flora Segunda is a novel of adolescence, of the passage from childhood to adulthood. It is supposed to be about locating your independence, and finding the strength to follow your own path, with all the knocks that come along the way. But Wilce is so eager to chart Flora’s adventures that she forgets the mundane things, the most obvious being her heroine’s sexuality. Flora is nearly fourteen years old, at the threshold of the most awkward and embarrassing period in a young girl’s life. Her best friend is a rather attractive, very suave fourteen year old boy, and one of the plot strands is predicated on Flora kissing her butler to give him her "essence." But at no point does she show any signs of puberty, or of an awareness of her body, or of a school-girl crush. She thinks nothing of climbing into Udo’s bed (p. 152), or of him walking in on her in the bath (p. 288); admittedly she is covered with bubbles, but really, can you imagine such a thing? So, despite the fact that she has the right overall trajectory—coming to terms with the difference between appearance and reality, and realizing the emotional complexity of her parents’ lives—Flora continues to be more like a child than a teenager. She is too innocent for her own good.
Which brings us, finally, to the winning novel, One for Sorrow (Bantam, 2007) by Christopher Barzak. A 21st century answer to The Catcher in the Rye, it is a fluent and enjoyable novel, a challenging piece of young adult-adult crossover fiction (even if not explicitly marketed as such) that explores all the facets of adolescence that Flora Segunda pretties over: the sexual yearnings, the emotional confusion and the urge to self-destruction. I don’t consider it the best or most promising book on the shortlist—no prizes for guessing my preference!—but I think it a coherent and well-rounded piece. It is the kind of novel that is called "accomplished," rather than "extraordinary," but that seems fair enough to me and, on reflection, it stands as a worthy winner.
Like Flora Segunda, Adam McCormick is a troubled kid from a troubled home. Unlike Flora, he inhabits a recognizable world—Youngstown, Ohio, which can be found on any map and is Christopher Barzak’s own territory. Adam's father is an infrequently employed construction worker with a hot temper; his mother is paralyzed from the waist down after a car crash, and his older brother, Andy, is a petty bully. His elderly grandmother has recently died. He is fifteen years old, practically friendless and ripe for an adolescent breakdown. All he is waiting for is a reason to go crashing into the abyss. That reason comes in the form of another death, the brutal and unexplained murder of his classmate, Jamie Marks, a boy with whom Adam was forming a nascent friendship. It isn’t long before rumors about sightings of Jamie’s restless ghost start to circulate, and Adam sets out to find him, in the hope that it isn’t too late to form an emotional bond with him. This first brings him into contact with Gracie Highsmith, the girl who found Jamie’s body and with whom Adam will lose his virginity; then with the murdered boy himself and finally, through him, with death.
From the beginning Adam is a credulous boy. His grandmother, whom he loved, was a believer in omens and patterns, and warned him that "God’s finger is coming. I see it in the sky. If you people aren’t careful, he’s going to pick you out for sadness" (p. 10). This admonition, combined with his teenager’s well-developed ego, predisposes him to feel fated for some special doom and cracks him open to the influence of the Otherworld. It never occurs to Adam to doubt that Jamie’s ghost is hanging about under Gracie Highsmith’s window; it is just the way he expects the world to work. His life is so full of disasters and emotional craters that he has to believe in a sinister and weird underworld running counter to it. His obsessive fixation on Jamie’s spirit grows, in part, from his desire to confirm the existence of this world, and to align himself with it. In other words, if he gives up on reality and passes over into the hinterland of the dead, nothing can hurt him any more. No more parental rows, no more torment at school, no sexual cravings and no need to worry about his lack of prospects. Underlying Barzak’s fantastical novel is a gritty reality: Adam has no hope of going to college, or of getting out of his claustrophobic little town. His family is white trash, and the only future he can conceive of is the mirror image of his parent’s marital and financial strife. At one point in the book he reads Salinger’s famous portrait of Holden Caulfield’s disaffection and exclaims:
Why the hell is he complaining? It isn’t like it was hard for him to get where he was going. He didn’t have to lie, steal or cheat someone out of money... So this kid has his own money and can break cash out whenever, for trains and cabs or to get drunk or to rent a room and get prostitutes to mess around with. Of course he’s sorry after doing these things, but then he just goes and does something stupid again and really doesn’t have to worry because he has enough money he can make a new life and forget about the one he’s fucked over. At the end, he’s in therapy. Whatever. (p. 132)
Adam doesn’t have such luxury; his troubles are a direct product of his social class. Better to end up dead like Jamie, than a rube like his father.
Barzak is very clever to explore the particular vulnerability of adolescence in this way. Not only as a time of young love, and sex, and drugs, but as a time when the will to destruction is insistent and omnipresent. Jamie is the symbol, the fetish if you like, of Adam’s death drive. It isn’t a new idea—popular wisdom has long noted the connection between disaffected teenagers and destructive paranormal activity—but it is so well executed that it bypasses late-night phoneyism. A lesser writer couldn’t have gotten away with the bold metaphor. It would have looked forced and disingenuous. But Barzak is skilful at bringing the mundane and the fantastical together with a unity of purpose. Take his conceptualization of Jamie. It has no romance to it; there is a persistent dank danger to him:
I turned around and there he was, naked, no Boy Scout uniform at all, with mud smudged on his pale white skin. His hair was all messed up, one lens of his glasses shattered. There was a gash in his head near his left temple, black and sticky with blood. He smiled. His teeth were filled with grit. (p. 42)
Whether this ghost is "real" barely matters (although it’s telling that he only appears to people peculiarly affected by his murder, like Adam, Gracie and his mother). It isn’t the point at issue, because Jamie isn’t the story. His murder is never solved, and his death isn’t the source of the book’s emotional drama. Essentially, the haunting is only a conduit, a plot device by which to explore the confused uproar of Adam’s early adulthood. Perhaps Jamie is just a manifestation of his troubled mind, a spot of schizophrenia to go with his depression and hopelessness. At the same time, Jamie is very real. Any teenager will recognize him. He is the influential friend who leads you astray; or the devil on your shoulder that convinces you that what is wrong is right; or just the petulant id that wants to consume everything. Importantly, however we conceive of him the effect is the same. Probably the novel’s greatest strength is that it transgresses the borders between genre and mainstream with such composure.
One for Sorrow benefits, stylistically, from its contemporary real-world setting. It allows Barzak to tap directly into the teenage culture that we can all identify with: the endless references to cinema and television, the self-dramatization and the bolshy language of the "totally" generation. There are some revealing, tone-perfect moments early on in the novel, such as this one, just after Adam first learns of Jamie’s murder:
I sat through Algebra and Biology and History, thinking about cops puking, thinking about Jamie’s body. I couldn’t stop thinking about those two things. I sort of like the idea of cops puking their guts, holding their stomachs, shocked into remembering they were human like the rest of us. But I wasn’t so sure what I thought about Jamie’s body, rotting beneath the railroad ties. (p. 21)
This reaction could only come from someone brought up on shows about cops and forensic scientists, as it plays out the clichés that we all know so well: the body out of shot, the freshman officer being sick in the foreground, the vicarious horror-cum-pleasure that comes from seeing their discomfort. And of course, the inevitable wonder: What is it like to see something so horrible that it makes you vomit? Occasionally Adam’s voice tips into caricature, with too many "whatevers" and "totallys" for comfort, but very rarely.
The denouement, when it arrives, is obvious, and the moral of the story is a tad clichéd. Still, the quietness is fitting, coming, as it does, at the end of a novel that carries off the fantastical excesses of adolescent histrionics with such equanimity. For his part Adam leaves gives up his fear that he is shackled to fate or to the past and, in doing so, disavows his citizenship of the Otherworld. Growing up is about leaving things behind. It is also, Barzak seems to be saying, about accepting and embracing what is mundane in life.
Reading the Crawford Award nominees has proved more interesting than I imagined. Certainly the breadth has been greater than I ever expected it to be, and that must be a strength. But it has left me asking questions about the validity of the prize’s broad criteria. For example, should short story collections spanning a decade of a writer’s development be eligible for a prize for first fiction, especially when stories have been published elsewhere and have appeared on other prize lists in their own rights? Are we in the business of handing out awards for simply collecting previous publications into book form? Indeed, can a writer be considered "debut" at all when their work has already played a part in the developing and changing the culture of genre, as Klages and Barron arguably have? Does this not give them an unfair advantage over those authors who are either publishing for the very first time, or embarking on a new form (i.e. a novel)? I’m disposed to think that it does. Further, I find it difficult to judge short fiction collections on the same terms as a novel; they’re made up of the same stuff—prose, plot, theme—but they’re different in execution, scope and capacity. Judging them fairly, side by side, doesn’t really seem practical to me, as the weakness of one form is the strength of another. Unfortunately, it is Klages and Barron who get the fuzzy end of the lollypop in the evaluation; a collection is just too changeable, too unpredictable for me in the face of an accomplished novel.
Similarly I find it almost impossible to sit a multifaceted, literary novel like God is Dead next to a children’s book like Flora Segunda and even consider the latter in the running. How can they compare? It is like judging Quentin Blake’s illustrations for children alongside a canvas by Dali. The illustrations are very good, for what they are, but they look dainty and parochial in the comparison. The only way to do it is to judge Flora Segunda as a children’s book and God is Dead as a literary novel, and decide which is better in its own category, which defeats the point of a "best of" award like the Crawford altogether.
Then, there is the question of the criteria on which we should judge a debut. We must decide whether we are judging an author’s potential, or whether we are judging their work at the present time; whether we are more willing to forgive errors of execution in light of their ideas and their occasional flashes of brilliance. Essentially, whether we prefer coherence and readability above the ferment of promise. Given the judge’s decision it would appear that they prefer the former, while I am personally inclined to the latter. That is, I value the nascent intensity of God is Dead above the steady workmanship of One for Sorrow. Barzak is capable of very good things; his ideas and his prose are lovely and rounded; but it seems to me that only Currie has the capacity to be truly great. One for Sorrow made me tingle; but God is Dead turned me to water. Ultimately, these are the effects by which I must judge the winner of an all-embracing prize like this one.
Victoria Hoyle works as a medieval archives assistant and researcher in York, U.K., where she lives with her partner and two guinea pigs. She reads as widely as she can, both in genre fiction and out of it, but with a penchant for the weird and small press. She litblogs at Eve's Alexandria with four friends and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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