Review: Sheltered by Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas

Sheltered is a perfectly lovely nasty piece of work, a “pre-apocalyptic tale” about all the horrible things people do in preparation for the end of it all. I enjoyed Sheltered immensely, but the first collection (which collects #1-5 of the ongoing comic) has an expectant, waiting quality about it, unfinished, almost unstarted. This dovetails beautifully into the themes of the comic: all of the potential of adolescence untapped and unstable, and how that adolescence slowly, choice by choice, resolves into dreary, irrevocable adulthood. Boo yah.

Sheltered first introduces us to Victoria and her father David. They’re newish members to the prepper community of Safe Haven, which lives somewhere in the hinterlands of Montana. Vic’s not altogether happy with her new digs, hanging out with Hailey, another teen girl who has been in the community much longer. “At this point I’d kill for a mall,” Vic says ruefully, sitting in a deer blind with a flask. “I hate malls. That’s how desperate I am for any sense of normality.” Her dad — an engineer of some stripe — talks shop with the other adults, obviously not quite with the whole prepper community ethos. There’s a pretty wonderful conversation about pulling permits, which I admit might not resonate for other readers who do not have a contractor’s license.

After the slow pan of the first installment, rolling over the bunkers and principals, we get to it: blank-eyed teenage psycho Lucas somehow gets all the other kids to rise up and kill their parents. The supervolcano over Yellowstone is going to erupt soon, within days — according to Lucas — and the food won’t last the three years necessary to survive the nuclear winter with all the adults alive. Hard times call for hard choices. Lucas’s motivations aren’t lingered on, nor are we given much in the ways of his persuasive arguments for doing this.

I thought about this narrative choice for a long while. It could easily be seen as cheating, rushing this hard to imagine brutality; bang, blood in the snow. But I thought it worked, in the end: this unexplained outbreak of violence in a community that has been preparing for a more explicable outbreak of violence. Plus, I dunno, I like the irony of a community preparing for the worst not being prepared for the very worst. Other than the newcomer Victoria, I get the impression that these kids have been raised with a shadow of doom their whole lives, the constant expectation of violence, and I can almost feel the relief when it arrives. Boom. Here’s your apocalypse.

Some of the mid sections are a little slack, with maybe not the best sense of place. Victoria and Hailey are bunkered down somewhere on the campus, Hailey injured, and I couldn’t quite tell you where their building was in relationship to others. Lucas makes a lot of terrible choices, and tends to respond to even perceived threats to his leadership with violence and cruelty. It works. He’s got the shiny blondness of a cult leader, but he’s still a kid. He’s marshaled his charisma to get the other kids to commit this unspeakable act, but he’s not mature enough or wily enough to manage their grief and guilt. What if you were wrong? What then?

There’s a great sequence where Lucas mansplains to another boy about how he should stop hanging out with a girl because we can’t have any pregnancies and we all have to think about group morale etc etc. His mansplaination goes on waaaay too long, long enough for the other guy to be like, geesh, lay off already, mom, I was just talking. It’s hard to pin Lucas’s motivations here: maybe he believes what he’s saying, but maybe he’s also jealous and frustrated that he hasn’t got any easy joking friendships. He’s clearly cut himself into the loner leader role intentionally, but intentions at that age are mutable and jumpy. When he can’t admit he’s wrong — and he really never can, given the stakes — his only recourse is to double down.

The end of the last installment ends with a truck pulling up, the tall figure of a man flicking his cigarette off into the snow. “Hey kid,” he says to Lucas. “Your parents around?” Boy howdy, they are not. There’s been a lot of scrabbling and missteps by Lucas up to this point, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this situation goes. On some level, a new grown up threat is what Lucas needs, given that the younger kids — like the foul-mouthed little shit Curt — have been acting like kids without parents. (Or even acting like kids with parents, because impulse control is low, parents or not.) If he can cow them into submission with another threat, he might be able to keep this crapshow going long enough for the supervolcano to blow. That’s the American way, after all.

 

Thanks to sj at Snobbery for turning me onto this.

Talking style with the St Paul Mayor

From the second in a series of fashion profiles from the Star Tribune of elected officials:

After the start of his second term in office, St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has shown that a man can possess a serious sense of fashion and still be treated seriously. So what we’re going to do, in our interview, is not take him seriously at all.

Describe your style: “I’m a Midwestern politician and I was trained as a lawyer, so I’m going to go with hugely bland. A lot of my family worked in newspapers so we have a family tradition of a “wardrobe for print”. But I’ve got a bod for sin, just like Melanie Griffith.”

You feel best when you’re wearing …“Blue shirt, red tie. But sometimes I like blue shirt, blue tie just to change it up. But just between you and me, business casual totally stresses me out. How am I supposed to accessorize Dockers and a polo shirt?”

Where do you shop? “It’s absolutely killing me that Men’s Warehouse evicted the “I guarantee it” guy from the board. That place was my favorite, but now, I don’t even know. What will it be without George Zimmer? Burlington Coat Factory is also really nice.”

You never leave home without …“So, this is a little creepy, but I have this rabbit’s foot from when I was a kid. It was dyed green, but the color has faded, so it seems a little sickly. I’m reasonably sure it’s the reason for my political success though, so I had secret pockets made in all of my clothes. Its name is Melvin.”

What’s your No1 fashion rule? “No white after Labor Day. I’m working on legislation that will make this law in St Paul. Plus, socks with crocs are both morally and ethically wrong.”

Are there any fashion challenges that come with being a man in politics? “I’m legit sick of all the attention that my panty lines get. So I like old fashioned boxers, and they have a tendency to wad up a little. Really, it’s just a couple pair of them, for my “fat days.”  It’s not anyone’s business but mine and my boys’.”

How has your style changed since becoming mayor? “I wore more sweaters when I was on the city council, but I think I need a more national look as a mayor, you know? Like I’m the boss, but not like the boss boss. I’m worried I’m sacrificing approachability for professionalism, but the right tie can really soften the whole “executive branch” thing. It’s a balancing act, like eating peas without honey.”

Tell us about your hair. “It’s 100% my own hair. I would not want to pull a Traficant; that’s just awkward for everyone. My wife calls me a “silver fox,” but I still can’t tell if that’s an insult or not.”

Who are your style icons? “Oh my God, there are so many. I mean, obviously, JFK, because I rarely wear hats. Obama, Clinton, and both the Georges Bush wore suits a lot and were in government. I think my sweater period was a nod to Fred Rogers. I honestly shed tears when he died. Such a good man.”

I can’t help but notice that this interview is 100% grade A gold-plated bullshit. “Right you are, Star Tribune. Keep up the good work, you rapidly irrelevant nitwits. Maybe I’ll accessorize the end of this interview with my middle finger.”

(With apologies to Chris Coleman, who seems like a nice guy. For sure doesn’t keep the severed foot of a small animal in his clothes.)

The Art of Losing: Hope is a thing

This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.

A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.

When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.

When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.

I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.

In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.

In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power

 

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

Magickal IreLand: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

When I read romance, I tend to gravitate to the paranormal ends of things – steampunkery, werewolves, (less so) vampires, superpowers, alt-histories. Some of this is just basic reading proclivities. I’d rather read science fiction or fantasy in general, so it makes sense I’d go for that edge of a genre. The other thing, for me, is that paranormal romance often allows the writer to slip her bonds and do a bunch of crazy ass shit. One a writer can start messing with the rules of physics or magic(k) or whatever, she has the opportunity to pull some compelling gedankenexperiments, but you know, about sex and the interpersonal, not about whatever SFnal idea. A lot of these thought experiments can seriously, seriously piss me off, but they tend to produce a lot of friction, a mainline down into the hind brain. When writers can rearrange the rules of the world, or your body, or the history of it all, what they reconstruct and reconfigure can be really telling.

Take, for example, Breaking Dawn, which includes about a 50 page span that is hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever read. The rest of that novel is a Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light painting wrapped in a snuggly blanket of No Narrative Danger, and ends, for this reader, in the most chillingly inert vision of family perfection I’ve ever seen. The mate-for-life trope gets me chuffed every time I see it – why would the removal of emotional agency be a desirable thing? – but it’s especially fucked in Meyer’s universe. There’s all this weird heat in the narrative, this danger that might just claw out of your stomach like a blood-covered baby with a mouth full of teeth. That you could look down on that and become suffused with love, like Bella does, is a deeply kinky thing to admit to, which is likely why the second half of that novel is an arm-wheeling attempt to cauterize the bloodletting through a bunch of speachifying and absolutely nothing happening.

Whether I like all this is not my point; my point is that is fascinating. I could reel off a dozen other examples of paranormals that have gotten my blood boiling, dropped my jaw, or otherwise surprised me with the parameters of their wish-making and the oddities of the wish-fulfillment. Which is why Nora Roberts’s Dark Witch is notable, in a way. Dark Witch is the coziest, most frictionless paranormal I’ve ever had put me sleep. The heroine is literally given a pony in maybe the second chapter she’s in, after being given a family, a love interest, her dream job, just the cutest little apartment in a cottage she’s ever seen, best friends, a sense of purpose, and magic(k)al abilities. This all occurs in the first half of the novel. By the time she’s given a new car – a Mini Cooper, squee – I was straight up laughing. I guess there’s some bother with a Voldemort-ish sorcerer, but I wouldn’t be too fussed with him until book three, when he will be – spoiler alert – defeated.

Dark Witch opens with a couple of chapters of 13th Century Ireland, where, apparently, all the kids are amazing, precocious and well above average. I mean, there’s a baby riding a stallion! I know! Anyway, housewife slash dark witch Sorcha is having problems because the evil witch Voldemort wants to fuck her or something. I’m not entirely clear on what this will accomplish, other than the obvious, and it’s the usual mumble mumble magic POWER mumble RULE THEM ALL of paranormal bunkum. (Even Tolkien, I hesitate to say. Quick: explain Sauron’s motivations, and “he wants power” is not a motivation. Why does he want it?). I’m also not entirely clear why Voldemort’s constant offers to impregnate Sorcha make her even slightly consider his offer, which it does. Sorcha has three children under the age of 7 and lives alone in a cabin in the woods with no running water in 13th Century Ireland. I would imagine that not being impregnated by an evil sorcerer would be like a get-out-of-death-in-childbirth-free card in medieval Europe, but what do I know.

Fast forward to the here and now, when Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to find her extended family and, like, herself. Her parents have always been withholding jerks, but she’s still irrepressibly optimistic and zesty. She heads out to find the O’Dwyer siblings, Connor and Branna, who are third or fourth cousins of some stripe. Branna runs a candle and hokum shop called The Dark Witch, and Branna is a falconer. (I know!) Iona is immediately adopted by the siblings, who are all like, you’re our lost sister, would you like to live in this adorable room and have a pint of Guinness and scones, sláinte, Irish Irish McIrish. Then they do a jig and play the fiddle, and shamrocks explode into sparkling green confetti. It’s really cool, very Irish.

My friend Mike has this theory that we should just turn England into a theme park which would be called EngLand. There would be people in plushy Queen Elizabeth costumes (both original and New Coke flavors) hugging babies, and rides around sets of various historical periods. It would all be clotted cream and nevermind all the bother of Thatcher and Blair and the fact that England isn’t frozen in the mythic past full of stallion-riding babies. And that’s more or less what the tourist trade will sell you, if you want them to, and you probably do. Mike’s theme park is more-or-less a reality in certain tourist districts, this Disney cottage sold to visitors who pay well for its clapboard authenticity.

This is even more fraught when it comes to Ireland, as the Irish diaspora after the Famine “returns” to the Old Country looking for connection and explanations, often bumbling into political realities that surprise. My sister-in-law whose maiden name has a Mc in it was blithely amused that her family in Ireland had been Catholic, and that they were a little taken aback by her family Protestantism. How would I even know that? she asked me, and I was like, um, because…just…nevermind. There’s a great album called “The Crossing” by folk musician Tim O’Brien (no relation to the writer), which is about the immigrant experience several generations on, the Return to Ireland, and what a bust it can be. Ireland will not adhere to your grandparents’ extremely suspect idealizations of lies their parents told them, mixed in with a bowl of Lucky Charms. In the song “Talkin’ Cavan,” an Irishman says to O’Brien, “A Cavan man then…you know, a lot of people wouldn’t admit to that,” after O’Brien cheerfully relates his family line.

“Then the very next day in the hardware store
I found a cousin ten times removed or more
But he was no apparition, he wasn’t a haint – he was sellin’ nuts and bolts and paint
I told him about our family connection, and he kinda stood there still, reflectin’
I could tell he wasn’t that much impressed when he asked me with nary a trace of jest
He said, ‘How exactly may I help you, sir?
I just bought some nails and got the hell out of there.”

The Ireland that Iona has traveled to, the one with the Branna and Connor hawking and making their little charms and soups and playing fiddle certainly must be a magic(k)al one, because ain’t no Ireland ever looked like that one, not in the here-and-now, not ever. How exactly can I help you, Iona?

But it’s a cozy painting nonetheless, this IreLand. All of the characters are relentlessly kind and decent people who enfold Iona into the warmth of their collective bosom. (Not that the guys have bosoms. Maybe it could be said that the love interest enfolds her onto the warmth of his collective…well, you catch my drift.) Everything anyone says to anyone else is devoid of subtext, just a bald and accurate statement about their internal state. Even Iona’s second act “misunderstanding” with her lover is handled with maturity (despite the stupidity of its underpinnings). I did really get a hoot out of the guys’ night/girls’ night out after said misunderstanding, and that I just called it a “hoot” is indicative of how much of a hootenanny it was. Gosh, those Irish know how to have a bottle of wine split between three women and joke about becoming lesbians and wake up with killer headaches. Golly.

It’s funny to me to read a paranormal novel so completely without high emotions of any kind, this soporific round of walks in the misty Irish spring and mature, adult conversations. There was one chapter, in particular, that detailed the making of a soup so closely that I thought maybe the soup was significant and it would burst into flames or something. No, it was just soup, which they then ate. Later I breathed a sigh of relief when a visitor interrupted a similarly detailed assembly of a pan of scalloped potatoes. (O, would that he had hailed from Porlock.) The wish-fulfillment is all front-loaded, not functioning as narrative reward. And if it’s not narrative reward, then what is it? I just don’t get it.

Dark Witch is a strange one, to be sure, almost tired of itself, of its forgone conclusions and lack of real conflict. Let’s just give the heroine a pony first thing and see what happens. It’s sweet that Roberts portrays this battle between good and evil as so forthright and cheerful, but it also isn’t any fun. Codladh sámh, dear reader.

The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones

There is no other monster more contested than the zombie. Call any creature which doesn’t adhere to strict Romero-style zombie epistemology – it runs, or it’s not exactly dead, or it can talk, or whatever – and someone will jump down your throat. I tend to take a functional definition of your fictional monsters, meaning I’m less interested in static attributes, and more interested in how those attributes are deployed in context. Meaning if it walks like a duck even though the text calls it a chicken, you might as well treat it like a duck in terms of how that fowl functions.

Take, for example, the vampires in Twilight. There is very little to the creature called vampire by Meyer that adheres to the folklore. They’re undead, and contagious, but they sparkle, cross running water, and can go out in sunlight with no deleterious effects. (I’m not even clear on whether they drink blood, or if they consume flesh too.) No one questions whether they’re vampires though, because the whole functional definition of a vampire has to do with predatory aristocracy, sexual and class politics, and certain kinds of body horror, especially as regards to procreation. (Maybe this last isn’t in the traditional folklore, but since Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, it’s definitely a thing.) Her vamps are just ducky, even if their attributes are only vampish.

But call the creatures in I Am Legend zombies, and you will get into serious trouble with the neckbeards, even though they (the zombies, not the neckbeards, though  them too, kinda) adhere to the functional definition of the zombie. They’re relentless; they outnumber “normal” humans (the opposite is almost always the case with vamps); they presage or have caused the end of the modern world; their body horror is not based on their sexual attributes, but on revulsion and rot. (Also, bearing in mind I’m talking about the Will Smith and Vincent Price films, not about the source novel. Those creatures are an interesting inversion.) Additionally, those movies have lots of the motifs of a zombie narrative: besieged homesteads, traumatic loss of loved ones, the slow madness of the lonely.

I guess my point is this: I’ve gotten into a lot of pointless, stupid arguments on these here Internets about the definition of the zombie, and I wonder why the definition is such a big deal to people. I wonder why people police that definition so narrowly. My pet theory is that zombie narratives are often about race and class, and we’re all pretty kinked about those definitions as well. Like when I see idiots say things like “Obama is half white, so I’m not being racist when I say this racist thing about him.” Race isn’t like swirl ice cream, but a complicated slurry of competing functional definitions. In other words, race can’t be defined by attribute; it can only be defined by function. But holy god do we want it to be defined by attribute in our biologically deterministic little hearts. Ditto zombies.

But pet theory aside, I think the other things about zombie stories is that they are new on the scene, relatively speaking, so they have a kind of same-same to them. Although the whole sexy aristocrat thing is new to the vampire – older folklore has vampires as more zombie-ish ghouls who are decidedly unsexy – the folklore is old enough to allow wide latitude in definitions based on attribute. We’ve got at least a hundred years of sexy aristocrat blood-drinkers. You can date the modern zombie to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, no question, which was filmed not long before I was born, cough cough. The motifs have yet to fully differentiate through a century of reiteration and reimagining. We’re still working out the tropes, collectively.

Which is why The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones is notable. No, the zombies are more or less your granddaddy’s Romero zombies – neckbeards take note – but there’s a fundamental weirdness to the proceedings that stretches the motifs, moves the markers, and fucks with the same-same. It’s ten years after the zombie apocalypse – or zombie apocalypses, as the end of the world was a slow, bleeding affair in this this novel, a series of last nights before the very last night. We pop into the life of the “more or less white” Jory Gray, low level schmuck who lives in the militarized encampment of what’s left of half of humanity. His girlfriend left him recently for the Church on the hill, the other half of what’s left of humanity.

It’s whispered by the working stiffs that the Church both worships and has neutralized the zombie threat, but this is the kind of whispering that occurs between all working stiffs, and it’s both envious and disbelieved. Jory works building Handlers, a kind of superzombie built out of mad scientry and bureaucracy. The Handlers are used to differentiate zombie flesh from the edible, human kind, scrambling in the dirt to eat our remains unless our remains want to eat right back. They’re also fucking terrifying, in a way, this barely restrained weapon used for the most prosaic ends. Everyone can see how they’re going to go wrong, and spectacularly, but everyone is just some asshole trying to get by

Everyone is shades of Jory Gray, trying hard not to be noticed until they are, and then fuck, maybe I’ll have to come to terms with that thing that one time. Maybe the apocalypse has more to do with one moment with a hammer than it does with anything that goes on later. Maybe we’re all working though that one trauma, and the zombies and superzombies and everything else is a memento mori, but a memento mori with teeth and a descant. Jones’s prose is nasty, pointed, that kind of horror writing that runs everyday until it escalates, and then it’s well over the fence. Catch up; keep up.

I thought the climax was confused a bit – what the fuck was that one thing – but the parts that ran everyday honestly wrung me out. So much of the end of it all is the end of the one true thing, the thing you keep trying to find once it’s lost, and when you find its reminder, you sit on the floor of the bedroom and weep. You kill something with a knife made of bone. You go to work everyday like a schmuck, because that’s what you’ve got in you. That’s the only thing left, until it isn’t. Who even knows.

The Gospel of Z feels non-functional, in a way, this fucking weird, armadillo-ridden narrative, too personal, too specific. This is something left out of the canon: a side story, an apocrypha, a letter to the Galatians. This is a vision on the road to Damascus brought on by epilepsy. This is a parking lot with a good vantage. Which makes it somehow perfect for the zombie narrative, giving you good, Romero zombies that no one could argue to do this crazy thing on the edges. God bless, and good night.

Review: Wallbanger by Alice Clayton

Like many – or maybe even most – romantic comedies, Wallbanger bumps along cheerfully until its third act, where the whole thing descends into unearned sentiment and willful stupidity. Situation comedies are almost always characterized by mistaken identities and misunderstandings – meaning the characters often have to be irrational, clueless or foolish to make the situation work – but the third act turn in Wallbanger towards just breathtaking stupidity and a frankly bizarre understanding of a woman’s sexuality felt egregious. This was one of a long list of fictions I’ve read ruined by its ending.

My husband asked me about this book right as I was mid-way through the third act turn, and I groused about the ending unfolding. He asked if I thought maybe I was just an outlier – lots of people like descent into treacle, obvs, or it wouldn’t happen as often as it does. And that’s a factor, sure. As with all comedy and romance, your mileage may vary. I guess I’m just annoyed with how stupid that third act turn was, incommensurate with the level of stupidity preceding. What I would like from my fluff reading is an even level of stupid and unbelievable so I can be prepared. Writing characters with a modest level of competence and humor only to abandon that for completely weird confounding action makes me sad.

Simon and Caroline meet cute after Caroline sublets an apartment from her boss. In her first week there, her sleep is interrupted by the neighbor in the next apartment having several loud assignations with several different women. (You know, not all at once, but serially.) Eventually, after weeks of trash talk with her lady friends and interrupted sleep, Caroline goes banging on the wallbanger’s door in the middle of the night to get him to STFU. It eventually turns out that Caroline and the wall-banging neighbor, Simon, are in a six degrees of separation situation, and her friends and his friends hook up while they razz each other and banter.

So far, so good. Again, comedy is personal, and this could certainly be the kind of humor to put you off, but I thought the middle sections of the novel were the kind of breezy, silly shenanigans I’m looking for from my lazy chick lit. No, it’s not particularly deep nor well written, but in terms of light entertainment, it got the job done. Simon is not a huge asshole and defends his situation credibly; Caroline clearly has seen too many Sex in the City episodes on Oxygen (the ones with the sex scenes and cussing expunged), but not in a nasty, label-obsessed way. Some of the situations made me cringe – the cabin – but mostly the interpersonal relationships were the kind of fakey, airless relationships that exist mostly to be punchlines, not profound statements on the human state or whatnot. Which is totally fine.

I’m given to understand that Wallbanger started life as a Twilight fan fiction, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how this has anything to do with Twilight. Unlike 50 Shades, the most successful of the pulled-to-publish fanfics out there, the characters in Wallbanger seem almost sensible and evenly matched. They’re roughly the same age and success level, and while Simon obviously has a different take on the whole monogamy thing than Caroline, he’s not a stalker psycho. The person whom I assume is the Jacob character has little in common with Jacob either structurally within the novel nor in terms of character attributes, and Caroline is no Mormon housewife slash shuddering virgin. In fact, my husband and I got into a whole thing about the ethics of published fanfiction – most of which I’m not going to replicate here – but I think the usefulness of the Twilight intertext is pretty minimal either way.

What I really want to bitch about is the third act shitshow involving Caroline’s orgasm or lack thereof. This complaining will certainly involve spoilers, though of the minimal kind, because when a romance heroine tells you she can’t get off at the beginning, what are the odds she’s going to get off by the end? It’s like the Chekhovian gun, only this time it’s the Chekhovian vagina. Somebody’s going to fire that bad boy until it clicks. Caroline tells us early on that she’s lost her O, as she calls it, due to an unfortunate hook up with a dude she calls “machine gun fucker”. I think it’s a blind date set up, and MGF is status-obsessed and boorish. She eventually fucks him out of resignation, just sort of to make the date end, which I recognized from my gauzy memories of dating as an unfortunate but sometimes eventual sexual situation.

It’s not so much that you’re coerced into sex with a bad sexual partner – even though you know it’s going to be bad – but just that you shrug and figure that bad sex is better than no sex at all. This argument uses extremely suspect logic, and I’m not saying it’s true, just that it’s thought by people like younger me and Caroline at points. I don’t even mean to be hyperbolic here, but Caroline’s reaction makes me think this sexual experience is a lightly encoded sexual assault. I get this supposed to be a funny haha set-up, a fakey impediment to be overcome by fakey shenanigans, but it really seems to me that the loss of desire – of sexual response – is such a serious issue that it shouldn’t be treated as lightly as it is.

Not that long ago, I was standing out on the back porch smoking with a friend of mine. I don’t even know how we got on the topic, but she related to me that she’d recently lost her mojo, which had precipitated something of a crisis with her wife. “Why am I not responding to this person I love? Do I not love her enough?” They asked each other and themselves. She went to her doctor in despair. Turns out, she had something like a cyst or other perturbation in her lady-system, a physical explanation for a situation that had pretty serious emotional bearings on her emotional state, her relationship, and her sense of self. I related how my sexual reactions had been gutted by the double punch of breastfeeding hormones and chemical birth control in the months after I had my first kid, and how weird it was to find that my sexual response was something that could be gutted like that. I’d always thought of my sexual being as inextricable until it was extracted. “Oh thank god,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

I didn’t know either, for months, what was going on, that it wasn’t my fault or in my control. (Not that if it were psychological it would be any more my fault or under my control.) This isn’t even factoring in all the body trauma I went through simply bringing my son into the world. The process of rediscovering my sexuality was a long and complicated one, one that had as much to do with chemical changes as it did to my emotional reaction to them. And that’s not even getting into friends I’ve known who’ve lost their mojo over maybe more severe traumas – psychological or physical – who have to work and work at healing, who have had kind and patient lovers who nonetheless cannot magically repair these dampened and depressed sexualities simply through love.

So when Caroline trips the fuck out because her first time having penetrative sex with her man does not result in her elusive O, I kind of wanted to scream. I don’t think it’s inaccurate that she wouldn’t orgasm from penetrative sex – only about 25% of women consistently do – nor do I think it’s inaccurate that she would blame herself for that “failure”. What drives me fucking bananas is that she magically finds her O again in a scene played for slapstick. and from then on it’s an O rodeo. Just, fuck, I know I’m taking this personally, but this kind of easy magic that has women lit up like a pinball machine after some kind words and the old in-and-out just burns me.

I’m not trying to be unromantic or a crank, and I’m not saying that this book is particularly horrible in its sexy times. This was just the book where I noticed that so much sex writing focuses on straight up (pun intended) penetrative sex as the be-all come-all, and I just can’t anymore. Love is grand, but it’s not going to ring your bell ipso facto. Kindness and understanding – which Simon does evidence, a little – go far in healing, but they are not an elixir. The moment when you realize you’re totally drunk is not the moment you become sober. That’s a whole other process. The rest of it is work, and letting go the idea that your orgasm is a metric, and time.

The third act of Wallbanger ended up being Cosmo healing, a checklist of simple solutions to decidedly unsimple problems, using trips and tricks inaccessible to most women. Again, there’s nothing particularly uncommon about the way Wallbanger portrays a woman’s sexual response, so my irritation is more aggregate than specific. But its commonality is precisely the problem. This is emancipation by will, empowerment through bikini wax. It’s not that I don’t think such things are possible; it’s just that they are constantly portrayed as probable when I know the lived experience is so much cooler, more fucked up, and weirder than these fluff pieces let on. I’m not expecting strict reality from my fluff – I’m not a complete buzzkill – I would just dig if for once it didn’t descend to the lowest, most common narrative, this glossy tabloid psychology that has neither the bite of insight nor the sacrilege of humor. I can be amused by situational comedy up until the situation is a real one treated cheaply. Alas and alack.

Posts from Overshare Planet: Unteachable

“How old did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. 25? How old did you think I was?”

“About the same.”

Both of us were lying. I was 19 and he was 31.

When I think of my body then, I have this sense of sharpness, like my skin was too tight over my bones, like the meat of my body was as thin and fine as the knife used to fillet it. I’ve always looked younger than I am. In high school, I’d go in solo and buy child’s tickets for the movies for friends because I could pass for 13 easy. I didn’t get my period until I was 16, and I was still growing, so I had that look of stretching bones, no boobs, no hips. Coltish, you’d call it if I were six inches taller; cute is the designation for the short. At five feet and some change, at 19, I could still pass for a freshman in the right light. Most of the light was right.

 

My boyfriends before him had been my age or younger, these sweet, sensitive boys who were as inexperienced with their bodies as I was with mine. One had vivid horizontal stretch marks on his back and thighs because he’d grown six inches the summer before. They were still shimmery and white. We spent a lot of time stripped to the skin because I think we needed to show someone our strange new inhabitations, like we were squatters setting fires for a night in an empty house and then found ourselves trapped. We were so tentative, like we were fragile, and we asked for permission like a hall pass. We would just go out and come right back.

The fashion that summer was baby doll dresses. They made my legs seem long and swung. I was as tan as I can get, which isn’t much, more a pink flush than a darkening, the freckles coming out on my nose, my hair bleached bright blonde like it had been when I was a girl. I had tan lines high on my thighs and the white flashed when I walked or sat. I never wore much make-up, just lipstick, often red. I knew the picture I painted. I knew who tended to be attracted to that, and was often ferociously cruel to people hitting on me. I treated people attracted to me like perverts, and they often were, which ends up being a centrifugal force of weltering shame and desire.

We met at some theater thing, at a collection of tables shoved together in an after hours restaurant peopled with friends of friends and hangers on. It was all very boho, very cosmopolitan. I was very impressed with myself. When he kissed me first, we were making our way through the dark balcony of a theater. There was theater junk everywhere, bulky and haphazard. I put my hands on his back so that I could follow his path and so I could put my hands on his back. He didn’t play coy; he knew what those hands meant. He turned and kissed me, running his hands over my body. He pinched my breasts, and I thought, there isn’t going to be a hall pass this time. When we came out later he asked me to come home with him. I said yes. I was still living with my mom.

It was only later we exchanged birthdays. He was apologetic and played at the ethical dilemma, but I knew it was theater. He said to me once when our relationship was shuddering to its death, something muttered almost like he was saying it to himself, “I wanted to be on my last girlfriend.” “I don’t,” I shot back, and his eyes were pure anime. I knew what I was and I found it surprising that he didn’t. Poor baby. Poor baby doll.

I have a friend who got fired from a gig writing porn for barely legalmagazines because he kept writing his girls too honestly. The line that got him fired was, “You smell like my grandpa,” delivered by a legally consensual Lolita to the 30 something guy who was making it with her in his car. Girls can’t break the fantasy. I loved his skin, the way it was losing its elasticity, the softness to the corners of his mouth when he frowned, his crow’s feet. I don’t have crow’s feet now so much as radiating lines above my eyebrows. I think I frown more than I laugh. His skin made me think of my grandma’s hands which were like suede and bird bones. I never said this, of course.

He wasn’t tall, and heavyset. He was rueful about his belly, the rolls on his waist, but I liked it. I liked that he was solid, like he was a person. I felt like I was made out of ballistics gel and vinyl, something carved out of plastic. I liked that his age had settled upon him. I wanted someone to set me on my knees and fuck me so that I could be fucked. I wanted someone to lie to me about how old I looked or how old I acted. I wanted my own shiny stretch marks as I swelled with experience. I wanted to use someone and then throw them away. That is more or less what I did. He wasn’t the only 30 something guy I dallied with at this age.

I learned from him, and the next affair was casual and silly. He was moving out of state in two weeks and we had quiet sex in a room full of boxes and that grew, quiet because his roommates were dour and religious. I knew he had a thing for small, mean blondes; the old saw: only God could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair. I could quote Yeats and self deprecate. Our first date was to the drive-in with the roommates. The movies were all 70s exploitation films, horror with a lot of blood splatter and casual nudity, and the woman – wife? I wasn’t tracking this sort of relationship then – decided we should leave after one of the characters bit off a man’s dick after a blow job. I thought it was funny, the way mean blondes do. I was very Hitchcock.

He pulled me away so he could explain why we were leaving. He was elaborately apologetic, about the movie, about his upset, religious friends. I kissed him while he was sputtering about some psychological bullshit and pressed him against the wall of the concession stand. He tasted like popcorn. The drive-in smelled like pee and gravel. The whole thing was ruddy. They dropped me off at home – we had all gone together – and he got out of the car and stood out on the sidewalk looking sheepish and hopeful. I was hoping we could go back to my place together, he said, gesturing at the couple in the car. But, you know, they’re religious. I smiled like a shark. I drove over and snuck in past them like the teenager I was. Most of our relationship was based on the short clock and the transgression. It was sweet in its honesty. It wouldn’t have lasted, but there was nothing wrong with it beyond the obvious.

My parents have old neighbor friends, a couple. They have kids just a little younger than me, more like my sister’s age and younger. They moved up north a million years ago back to my dad’s hometown. He became a teacher, and I think she was too. A dozen or so years ago, he started fucking one of the seniors in his class, a technically legal but nevertheless actionable offense. He was fired; his wife left him; my mother, my dad’s ex-wife, made this really specific face of disgust. He followed the girl out to college and they ended up married when she graduated. They had a baby. She went to grad school. She has a PhD, is on tenure track at a good school, and has a 10 year old boy. He’s retired. I don’t think you could call their relationship anything but a success at this point. If I wanted to sit in judgement about it, I’d be well too late.

A couple of years ago, my dad took my son up for a weekend up north, and they met with his friend and his son. The pictures of the boys on the rocky north shore beach are transcendent as they jump around like boys and throw rocks, one grandson, one son, samesies. I can mimic my mother’s face now, the one of disgust, the very specific one. Considering their relationship makes me think of dad in ways I don’t like, not that he has any culpability in this. I don’t like being reminded of the power of potential. The skin on my jawline has gone soft.  I just learn new faces when I slide them on, but under all my aging softness is that hard 19 year old girl. God, she’s such a terrible creature to consider.

Leah Raeder’s Unteachable made me consider that terrible creature, and it was full of that lying honesty I remember, the sensation and overheated meaning. Maise O’Malley and Evan Wilke meet cute at an ugly local fair, all carnies and robbed tourists, Southern Illinois. She’s a bored senior, 18, flash and skitter. They ride the roller coaster and when it drops, so do they. She fucks him on the bench seats of his hipster car and then walks away to the first day of class several weeks later. He’s her teacher. He makes feints to the ethical dilemma, but she knows who she is, what she is. She sits on the hood of his car like the trope she is, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. She can quote Nabokov and self deprecate.

Maise is almost too worldly, too allusive, this older Maise cracking through the voice. There’s a retrospective edge to it that makes her possible, but then she was possible anyway, horribly, the way I was. I have diaries of that time and they’re full of poetry and fragments, raw, stupid, cruel, funny. I like the person who wrote them, but she’s lying like I’m lying now about some things. Maise’s playing it for theater, but it’s the kind of theater that strips you, full of starbursts and skin, the kind that strips herself.

Unteachable reminded me of The Age of Miracles, in a way, though Julia from that novel is so much younger, so quiet and watchful. Unteachable has the same inexorable stretching though, the bones still growing, the marks on the skin still shiny like spider eggs. Maise and Julia are both girls, and they narrate their slow softenings: the days they look in the mirror and see their mothers; the father they replicate in sex or silence; the trying on of a hundred different faces, not all of them of disgust, so many of them of wonder at the stretching bones, the surprise of yourself, the hard and gem-like flame maintaining its ecstasy. Terrible creatures, all of us. Amen.

Backwards Compatible: A Geek Love Story

Backwards Compatible reads like a cross between The Guild and Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist, though the comedy isn’t as sophisticated as the former (which, you know), nor the central relationship as affecting as the latter (which, also.) George and Katie meet cute at a midnight event for the sale of the newest version of a World of Warcraft-ish game. After a tousle over the last copy of the game is won by George, Katie guilts him into giving it to her because boobs and tears. The plot details a growing group of gamers, high school friends, losers and little sisters playing video games, hanging out at the mall, and learning a little something about friendship.

Both Katie and George are on winter break from college, back in their somewhat dire sounding small town, and the novel invokes that loose, awkward, timeless sense of the winter vacation like crazy. Though their college lives aren’t even detailed too closely (or at all), you can kind of see them in the negative of too much unstructured time and the growing disconnects with high school friends. No one has any money; rides must be scammed or jumped; younger siblings are suddenly giving out (extremely questionable) romantic advice. No one sleeps or showers. I’m maybe making this sound grim, but the grimness is really more in my recollection of those times, not in the novel itself. As usual, I need to lighten up.

As a comedy, Backwards Compatible relies on an incredible amount of trash talk and roughly eleventy million pop culture references. I found the trash talk tiresome, but then that’s an aspect of gamer culture that puts me off.  And as far as the eleventy million references go, some worked, and some didn’t, which is per usual with that kind of humor. The geeking is so constant throughout that you’re bound to find something funny, and there’s a really great gag executed near the end involving George’s Christmas traditions. The sequence at the second Hobbit movie, which certainly wasn’t out when this was written, was alarmingly prescient. Don’t even get me started on those movies.

The only sour patch for me was the date Katie went on a date with a gamer asshole, which, in another kind of book, would have ended in a sexual assault. It was too triggery in a way that was supposed to be funny, and George’s reactions were kind of the worst. Again, not to be too dour, and you know, haha that pushy dudes don’t know that cosplay isn’t consent. I guess. But mostly this was fun and diverting, not really trying to do too much and succeeded at what it attempted. Katie and George are likable dorks, even if they read a little younger than I would expect from college juniors. (The big THERE’S NO SEX IN THIS BOOK warning I could do without in the marketing too, but then given the state of most New Adult titles – which often read like a gyno exam – maybe a little warning is in order.)

Oh, and big points for having George drive a Geo Metro named Crimson Lightning. Geo Metros are the best. Mine was named The Flying Pickle before it got cracked up in an extremely low impact accident many moons ago. RIP The Flying Pickle, and my lost youth.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.

Beautiful Disaster: Most of this Title is Wrong

There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?

Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.

Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.

Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America,  who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)

So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.

Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.

People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.

“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!” 

Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.

What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.

The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances:  Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.

Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.

Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.

Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.