37. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Published in 2008 by Chatto & Windus.

Longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Translated from the Chinese by Rebecca Morris, with revisions by Pamela Casey.

“You can check any Chinese dictionary, there’s no word for romance. We say ‘Lo Man’, copying the English pronunciation. What the fuck use was a word like romance to me, anyway? There wasn’t much of it about in China, and Beijing was the least romantic place in the whole universe.”

Fenfang is, all things considered, probably not the kind of girl a good boy would take home to his mother. After all, she skipped out on her staid household in Ginger Hill Village, at the tender age of seventeen, for a taste of life in Beijing. When we meet her at the slightly more inured state of twenty-one, she has cast her luck in the world of acting, filling out a form that shows a list of her accomplishments and defining characteristics in stark, unsatisfying relief. Cast in a series of semi-regular but anonymous roles, she soon tires of a career built on playing extras, and longs for what she terms “the shiny things in life”. When advice on a new career path is offered from an unlikely source, Fenfang balks, not thinking herself clever or experienced enough for the challenge. Faced with the monotony of her hand-to-mouth, cramped existence, however, she embarks on a project that might well alter the course of her cockroach and ramen-populated Beijing existence.

For the best chances of success, if 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth were entered in an Olympic sporting event, I’d say it merits inclusion in the hundred metre sprint. Here is a novel ideal for those who favour the fast, vaguely dirty, edifying read: an elevator tryst in terms of fiction, to be sure, but one that will leave you thoughtful, with a few other ideas for follow-up titles. The storyline is neatly chopped into the twenty aforementioned segments, each tasting like tart, indulgent sections of orange, or, if you prefer, twenty separate pulls on an extra-long clove cigarette. This form suits the tale being told: longer chapters, plump with detail and context, would lend themselves to the depiction of a full life, but the reader isn’t meant to see the protagonist that long. We catch glimpses of her in what she reveals, and how she reveals it — with irrepressibly funny, often-exasperating singularity.

Just how singular is the singularity of Fenfang’s personality, though? Certainly, she seems erratic, by turns impetuously in love and out of sorts with Beijing’s electric charms. On the one hand, her perspective could, one surmises, be not dissimilar to that of any nomadic, headstrong teenager, eager to cut ties with a provincial upbringing, falling over themselves in the giddy gaucheries of self-discovery.

On the other hand, there is the distinct impression, conveyed by the author’s canny sleights-of-hand and sensitive immersion in the world of her leading lady, that we want no other narrator but Fenfang on this journey. We become interested in her hilarious struggles with surprising expediency. Indeed, her struggles become hilarious because of the manner in which she documents them, with a child’s o-faced wonder and an old woman’s absurdist resolve. For instance, she describes the saga of cockroach infestation as though recollecting the hues a pretty, if unsanitary portrait — and the results are side-splittingly funny.

“I’ve been blessed with cockroaches in every place I’ve lived in Beijing, but it was in the Chinese Rose Garden that I was truly anointed. My apartment was their Mecca. […] They lingered on the rims of cups, sat in my rice cooker pondering the meaning of life. The thing about my cockroaches, they were very cinematic, like the birds in that Alfred Hitchcock film. I was under constant attack.”

Through Fenfang’s eyes, the reader is able to experience Beijing as it time-lapses across a decade. Referring to herself several times as a mere peasant, she finds an array of manners no more refined than the behaviour to which she was accustomed in the sweet potato fields of home. In fact, her brief New Years’ visit to her parents provides a glimpse of more kindness than she receives at the hands of brusque police officers, supercilious old crones, vengeful ex-boyfriends and leering, patronizing producers. The irony is not lost in Guo’s unblinking prose: in many ways, communist corridors of draconian morality prevent Fenfang from embracing the freedom she has travelled so far to savour. Beijing is a city open to the young adventuress, to be certain, but its rapidly-morphing ideals and jumbled cultural syncretism throw up a gauntlet of obstacles.

While hardly a novel that could champion a sexual revolution, the writer gives Fenfang the reins of autonomy in choosing her lovers. Whether our protagonist does so with discernment or not is for the reader to discover; what is worth remarking upon is that she makes her own choices. Her relationships with two markedly different men are equally telling: Xiaolin, the long-term lover who proves himself capable of literally shattering acts, and Ben, the Ph.D candidate who inveigles his way into her affections with an ailing scarlet lily. From these romantic affairs, what is perhaps most encouraging is the manner in which the narrator glimpses herself, how she perceives the tenuous yet resolute tendrils of growth that emerge from loving and making related messes.

We may not be able to trust in the wisdom of this chronicler’s every act, but any person who has longed to be away from what stifles them can trust this unlikely heroine’s hunger for escape. “I was 17 when I left that shithole for good,” she reports, without a smudge of shame. “Thank you, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky. Everything about that day is so vivid still: the stretch of the sky, the pull of the wind, the endless, tangled fields, the silent little village and how it burnt itself into my heart as I ran.”

Perhaps Fenfang and her curiously-composed story aren’t allowed enough screen time to win a permanent place in the reader’s heart. Those who prefer meatier, gently undulating parables will be stung by the fictive taxi ride that 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth represents. The tale is like a chance encounter on a train platform, an hour’s recollection over fennel dumplings at some fantastically-named dive of a restaurant. It’s easy enough to lose in one’s memory, but for stories like these, all it takes is a precise plume of smoke, a disastrous flirtation with a cockroach or a glance at a Tennessee Williams play to send the reminders flooding back. Here’s to girls who seize their uncertain futures through whatever means necessary: because they don’t much fancy meeting the mothers of those good boys, anyway.

36. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Published in 2010 by Small Beer Press.

Winner of the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award.

Winner of the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award.

Longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

“It is not the known danger that we most fear, the shark that patrols the bay, the lion that rules the savannah. It is the betrayal of what we trust and hold close to our hearts that is our undoing: the captain who staves in the boat, the king who sells his subjects into slavery, the child who murders the parent.”

Paama has fled the gluttonous suffocations of wedded life with her husband, the incessant eater, Ansige. Retreating to her family village of Makhenda, where “a stranger was anyone who could not claim relation to four generations’ worth of bones in the local churchyard,” Paama takes refuge in the comforts of this homestead, turning towards the preparation of sumptuous meals, for which skill she has become deservedly renowned. Her newly-earned equanimity is shattered, however, when Ansige waddles into Makhenda, eager to win back his wife, wreaking havoc on village mascots, corn crops and mortar grinders in the process. In her resolution to sever ties with Ansige, Paama receives an unsolicited gift from the djombi, immortals who observe and often intermingle their stories in the lives of men. Wielder of this present, the Chaos Stick, Paama struggles with the full implications of its power: that of exerting balance amidst the world’s discordancies. She cannot see the indigo-hued djombi who lurks, cloaked in shadow and resentment, intent on reclaiming the sceptre of Chaos, complete with all the power he believes stolen from him.

This remarkable first novel comes with a guide: a wryly humorous, tender-tongued omniscient narrator whose presence in the story is unshakeable. It is through this voice that the reader is ushered in and out of scenes, as if being whispered to gently between the set-changes of a play. Frequently, we are invited to set our minds to the task of furnishing details for the settings invoked by the writer. For instance, in the chapter that introduces us to the indigo lord, the narrator has us conjure the image of a many-pillared hall, studded by striking details yet still surprisingly open to the finishing touches of readerly interpretation.

“Beyond the pillars are more pillars, presumably supporting more roof structures, a whole fleet of upturned boats to the right and to the left of this main enclosure. If there are walls, I cannot see them to give you any report of them. It is supposed to be majestic, the hall of a high lord. Instead, it is empty, sterile and cold, speaking not of present pomp, but of ultimate futility. It proclaims that all is vanity.

There is a throne. The throne is unoccupied.”

If the forays into sideline commentary of this sage speaker ever veer into too-muchness, they prompt less eye-rolling than one might expect. Instead, the method of framing Paama’s revelations is cannily done, leveraged with the wit and perspicacity of the bard-minstrel to whom we listen. This renders the experience of Redemption in Indigo as akin to a courtyard’s fireside rambling, not a structured bookshop discourse.

The characters of Lord’s novel, protagonists and background figures alike, are coloured in with unfaltering precision, with a craftswoman’s devotion and constancy. No hero is devoid of at least one persistent foible; no villain languishes in the abyss of utter depravity. This fullness of fleshing-out applies not merely to the book’s mortals, either: djombi resemble in intention the capricious, world-weary Greek and Roman gods, though they do not seek out their mannerisms, nor the particularities of their origin stories. One of the narrative’s most endearing passages sees the Sisters of a certain arcane House describing Paama’s attributes to a young man assigned the perilous task of tracing her whereabouts. They speak of her courage, compassion, discretion and integrity, adding, too, that “she has the most beautiful dreams”, but are frankly nonplussed when taxed for Paama’s physical appearance. The hint is subtle, yet well-taken: in some sects, at least, impressions of personality weigh most favourably…perhaps they will continue to do so.

A slender fictive work, Redemption in Indigo is told in an even, neatly-trimmed pace, with no chapter likely to be accused of unnecessary padding. Though a minor marvel of economic exuberance, one rather longs for those extra chapters, especially in those scenes where Paama’s journeys scatter her footsteps across the globe, as she tries to parse the complexities of meaning that the Chaos Stick affords. Concepts of chaos and calm are not, however, subject to short shrift; it is to Lord’s credit that she navigates considerations of anarchy and splendour in a shorter novel. Longer creative works often suffer because of their refried bombastic exposition; it is a rare feat to prompt the desire for a story to be cushioned instead of clipped.

Such is the writer’s moulding and mapping of this other-world (that hints at other worlds within and around its terrain, too) that what dissatisfies us for its brevity may be imagined-in, with generous amplitude. It is this vastness of scope and significance, housed in so unassuming a structure, that gives the most pleasurable pause to the pages of Redemption in Indigo. When converging folklores find their waypoint, stories like these are the result: sensitive, personage-driven tellings of arachnid tricksters, divining rods, of the sanctity of sisterhood and the astonishing gifts that may be given to a woman who confronts the unpredictable force that is Chaos itself.

This review is proud to be part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe Reading Tour, a truly exciting event that seeks to showcase the broad spectrum of talent in speculative fiction written by authors of colour. A thrilling assortment of novels, short fiction collections and anthologies have been read and reviewed; for the full list of participants, visit the schedule post on Aarti’s book review site, BookLust. 

35. Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber.

Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

On the islands named Trinidad and Tobago, it is the 1970s, and the Black Power uprising has come and gone. The men who led it with courage and determination have seen their dreams of social change shattered, their purpose suddenly uncertain. Among these former revolutionaries is KingKala, a poet-kaisonian returning from detention to find that his former comrades-in-arms have either fled or adapted strange new personas. KingKala is joined in bemusement by Sonnyboy Apparicio, a fellow songster and man of action who no longer knows in which direction his fortune, to say nothing of his responsibility, might lie. When the chance to perform roles in a promising foreign film emerges, KingKala and Sonnyboy leap at the opportunity, only to learn that the parts in which they have been cast, that of exotic tribesmen, are to be short-lived. Faced with this dilemma – of whether to die the complacent on-stage deaths they have been assigned, or to challenge this assumption – the two men begin to grow closer. Their camaraderie sets one of the multiple backdrops for the events in Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie, a novel of myriad contemplations on life, love, and the issue of identities on a personal and national scale.

Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Is Just a Movie is Lovelace’s first published novel in over a decade. A work marked by much anticipation, it is told in that signature style of an ease in storytelling, of a writer’s tongue primed in the rich awareness of local landscape and local concerns. The characters who populate this novel strike the reader as people known throughout a lifetime, their stories, dreams and grievances akin to those overheard at the market, the mosque, in Woodford Square or on the streets during Carnival Tuesday mas. KingKala, self-avowed “maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets”, does not so much preside over the happenings in the fictional village of Cascadu as he observes them, sometimes in silence, sometimes chiming in, but always vigilant.

It is Sonnyboy who more often claims the focal role; in his frequent forays into different jobs and titles, he is a portrait of a nation’s expectancy; he channels the frustration of his unrealized dreams, along with his ever-persisting desire to be seen in his community not as a badjohn, but as someone more: as a man capable of rising above the weight of old, unwise decisions.

Perched on the shoulder of the narrator, KingKala, the reader can expect to shift seamlessly through decades, major occurrences, seasons of both nature and politics. The Prime Minister who rules both uneasily and assuredly over the nation is seen at one instance in the heyday of his governance; in a later scene, he appears to still be in power, far past his expected due. The everyday grit of ordinary circumstance is pitted against the suggestion of otherworldly happenings. This subtle marriage of the literal and the fantastical is woven together with an unblinking skill; it convinces utterly, making no digression seem unnecessary, no tall tale excessive. It feels perfectly natural for villagers to be playing cards in one chapter, then lining up to officially sell their Dreams for money in another. Ancient historical figures are invited to celebrate the nation’s successes; prime ministers declare their intentions to live forever; miracles remain within the realm of hope. A multitude of voices accompany single encounters, acting as a reminder that there are a whole host of ways in which reality can be perceived. Not every story needs to be told within rigid lines; Is Just a Movie benefits from the intricate tapestry of its structure, presenting a reading adventure as ornate as it is serenely guided.

The narrative never focuses doggedly on Sonnyboy alone, allowing the stories of the other inhabitants of Cascadu to be told in vivid, enduring detail, with equal measures of humour and sobriety. Through Sonnyboy’s experiences are filtered the hopes and dreams of unforgettable figures: of Franklyn, whose unmatched prowess at batting causes an entire village to creak to a standstill; of the beautiful Dorlene, whose near-mishap with a falling coconut prompts her to literally turn her life around. Daily events shape the fabric of everyday communal life, ranging from the commonplace to the fantastic: the swift decline of corner shops, the disaster of a flambeau-lit political party’s campaign, the unexpected miracle accompanying a funeral.

Told in language that soothes and thrills, Is Just a Movie is a novel replete with symbols by which Trinbagonians can map their multiple places in history. When Sonnyboy hears the sound of steelpan for the first time, “the notes flying out like flocks of birds…like a sprinkling of shillings thrown in the air, like a choir of infants reciting a prayer,” he is attuned to a timeless magic. Not every revelation is meant to be comforting, however – as a Laventille shopkeeper grimly comments, “What was performance in Carnival is now the reality of life. The devil is no longer in the make-believe of Carnival; he is right here on our streets. The Midnight Robber is not a character in our fiction, he is in possession of real guns.”

In this most recent offering from a master literary craftsman, the abiding messages of resistance, and of the pride one earns from self-recognition, illuminate every page. It is writing that unhurriedly allows us to see ourselves as we are, blemishes and beauty marks alike, and to grow in the power of that incredible knowledge.

This review first appeared, in its entirety, in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on September 2nd, 2012. You can view it here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

32. Archipelago by Monique Roffey

Published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster.

One day, Gavin Weald uproots himself from the staid, reassuringly placid existence he’s meted out for himself and his six year old daughter, Océan, and quite literally takes to the sea. Companioned by their loyal hound, Suzy, and enough furtively-acquired supplies to see them well out of Port of Spain waters, they set sail on Gavin’s old Danish boat, Romany, to visit the Venezuelan Los Roques archipelago. Gavin once frolicked there in his heyday, before the advent of his family, before the coming of the great brown flood waters that devastated his home and its now distressed, fragile occupants. Other Weald family members will not be making the trip with them. Each precarious marker of the voyage out is signalled by Gavin’s fear, his nauseous uncertainty over where the right path might lie. As he shepherds this most unlikely of crews across the startlingly blue seas for which his daughter is named, he is reminded that there is a shape to his oldest of dreams that he scarcely registers, one that the sea will send surging to the fore.

Overweight, beset by painful psoriasis and more than his fair share of daily nightmares, Gavin Weald resembles no archetypal moulds for an adventurer-hero. Before he sneaks Romany out of the TTSA harbour, the burden of his aging body weighs heavily on him, so disparate from the younger, fitter, carousing image of his youth. Soon after he and Océan slip the bonds of Trinidadian waters, though, Gavin feels that settled knowing of the sea stir in his bones.

“The sea makes him feel lonely and yet so very much himself; she makes him gather himself up, a self which has vanished some time ago into the element of air. Overnight, the fluid in his veins is catching up with the fluid and the rhythms of the sea; he feels like the sea appears, placid, powerful.”

For all of our protagonist’s uncertainty, his prevarications on both dry land and shifting water, the quiet splendour of Roffey’s characterization means that we want no other guide for our travels. Gavin is less overtly reassuring than he is persistently earnest, a sentiment that earns him further unwarranted harshness from life, yes, but also visits upon him moments of sublime grace, such as the raw pleasure of seeing Océan snorkel for the first time. Everyone, the author subtly reminds us with each sea-swell and map-charting, can face bold and complicated terrain. Peregrinations of discovery are not merely for the flat-chested or unflinching.

Islands are everywhere in this stunningly rendered novel, reminding or teaching us anew about our individual selves against their history-mired backdrops. The long arm of human injustice, greed and excess runs on no shorter a leash here, as Gavin, Océan and Suzy dock in multiple ports to discover. Beach-combing through the sea’s washed up treasures on one of the Los Roques islands, Gavin muses on the disturbing assortment of plastic debris and shattered coral, thinking, too, of how oil swallows up life around them, oil destroying nature. Father, daughter and dog confront the garish spectacle of cruise liners; the beguilingly pink slave huts at Bonaire; the uneasy history that built the Panama Canal, with equal parts wonderment, dread and curiosity. Nothing seems clear about human progress: it all glimmers, like the Sea Empress tourist ship, “grotesque and a spectacle in its own right.”

We’re taught in some of our earliest creative writing classes that one of the great bankable conflicts worth exploring in both fiction and non- is Man’s relationship, and struggle, with the environment. The novel mines this persistently (and not necessarily in the ways you’d expect, either), but it also reveals in both frustrating and gleeful detail what we learn about ourselves in the process. The sea cradles the real possibility of a different life for Gavin and his daughter, bound up in which is the re-scripting of their damaged intimacy. Water of one sort has the potential to heal, if not completely, then life-sustainingly, the rupture caused by water of another chaotic provenance.

“It feels like he and Océan have blended. They have softened in themselves and with each other; the sea has dissolved them, and they are suppler in their skin. They have been disappeared for weeks now, and they are sun-henna brown […] He didn’t expect to feel so lost in his own escape; a new space has opened up, an ocean.”

This wilful act of disappearance reminds or encourages the reader of what solace and redemption there might be in unmooring. If no-one is sympathetic to your plight, the sea will have you, but one cannot bargain with her for support or guidance. Gavin marks every leg of his journey with unlooked-for allegiances of varying intensity, with keen observations of the shifting natural landscapes around him. Reflecting on South America’s bloody history of invasion, torture and revolt, he muses that “Recovery takes time; it is the story of the still emerging Caribbean.” The land aches for the erasure of trauma, much as the individual does: Roffey stresses here that neither on regional nor personal fronts can rooted suffering be brushed away, not without investigation and the watchful calendar’s cycle.

Archipelago’s trajectory reminds the reader in both subtle and unapologetic flourishes that through our best-laid plans for Nature, Nature herself persists. The novel is replete with achingly beautiful descriptions of the world that frames these seafarers. Even in the midst of tantalizing doubt, of crippling loneliness, Gavin cannot but soak it in, the “skies… reflecting sea reflecting sky reflecting sea; this world is so electric in its shades of blue…”. Storm weather holds its own relentless magic, at once spellbinding and cautionary:

“That evening the sky pinks over. Grey and indigo clouds stay still in the sky like towering puffs of cream, like staircases made of foam. Forks of lightning appear miles away, silent delicate veins of gold, fizzing down from the clouds.”

The further Gavin, Océan and Suzy plot their course, the more they allow themselves to drift into the arbitrary shelter that Nature provides, learning in increments that the best harbours can turn hollow, learning, also, that there is refuge in unexpected places. This hard-won reassurance beats at the maritime heart of Archipelago: that the perilous journey, no matter how hurricane-beset, finds its own natural way of leading you back to yourself.

A marginally shorter version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian’s inaugural Sunday Arts Section on August 5th, 2012. You can view it here.

To read my impressions of Roffey’s novel prior to its launch, you can check out my Bocas 2012 coverage of her discussion with Rivka Galchen and Anita Sethi, here.

31. The Repenters by K. Jared Hosein

Published in 2011 by K. Jared Hosein.

“And then he walk up to me with a fake smile. I know the smile was fake. I am the man to know bout fake smiles. And I am the last to be offended by them.”

Joshua Sant is busy doing God’s work. This is what he’s been led to believe by the eerily charismatic Judah Weir, a foreigner to Trinidad with seemingly fathomless resources and a singular purpose: salvation. Weir is in the business of making sinners repent, no matter how bloodstained or brutal the path that leads towards a plea for forgiveness. He seeks out those with no necessary talents other than the eager capacity for violence, and the dogged mettle requisite for enforcing it. This is where Joshua comes in, finding the pattern of his previously nihilistic yet unremarkable life changed forever by Judah’s imperative. If this new, financially viable lifestyle is a conduit through which Joshua can keep close to Mouse – a woman who proved to be the saving grace of the former’s upbringing – then it is a path he will take without a flicker of hesitation. Even a semblance of intimacy with his cherished Mouse, Joshua decides, is worth far greater crimes than the ones he commits in Judah’s quarantined hilltop facility.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. Hosein acquaints us early on to what happens when we dredge closeted sins from the basement and make them play in the bright daylight. Is there nowhere we won’t go, I wondered, mid-reading, in this vivisection of the human psyche? You will think you have encountered some of the bleakest mappings-out of individual behaviour, (keep an unblinking eye out for the story of Emil Syrový) and then a previously-unseen corridor will shift into focus, holding enough contemplations to shake you out of your complacency. What keeps this from registering as hyperbolic or overwrought is that the lens through which we observe most of this depravity is Joshua himself. A creature of merciless, arbitrary circumstances, Joshua is so inured to violence that he’s able to calmly mull sentiments like, “Fire is really just another kinda knife” without missing a beat.

Joshua Sant is drawn with a meticulous hand, as are all of the writer’s characters. We understand that they have lived before we meet them in print here, that some will continue to live after the story has been concluded, while others will brush up against far more dubious fates. Whether we’re spending time with Joshua and his Blue Bayou CD, Mouse and her suitcase of books, Sister Kitty and her insatiable penchant for people-pleasing, Hosein turns them all to the light of our scrutiny. Major and minor players alike are primed for our illumination, horror and bleak humour. We believe their best intentions as much as we doubt their worst.

Perhaps you get a headache when your straight highway through fiction takes an unexpected detour. If so, you should probably skip The Repenters, which is a stream of consciousness ramble/rant/pleasure-pain-cruise through one man’s patchwork interpretation of his past, present and days yet to come. Joshua’s coherency is often in dispute, and it is in fact his jagged internalizations that share the most of himself. Witness, for instance, how he unfurls, after visiting some stake-related remodelling on an snarling predator:

“… a bowl of grapes appear before me i take one and eat it. i eat the grapes then the grapes eat me. the grapes feed away on my insides and what a lovely symbiosis it is turning out to be

i think bout waking up

i think bout people waking up and praying to god and kneel before their ten dollar calendars with dead jesus on it or putting the milk or flowers or whatever on the lingums outside. scrubbing up leftovers of ash and feelin so grateful for the day

always secretly wished i could wake up and know what it like to be grateful to wake up

and know how grateful i should be feelin for even bein able to feel grateful for wakin up

i have to be drunk yes”

If you think this is spectacularly weird, then truly you’ve seen nothing. I began the novel with a confident blueprint for continuity and procedure, yet I found myself repinning time-space markers, backtracking to check events and the minutiae that defined them. Eventually, I let go, and let the experience happen to me, which I found to be eminently more satisfying, because of the non-linearity. Hosein neither breaks nor bends any rules of storytelling lightly. Indeed, his attitudes towards storytelling define something I vastly enjoyed in the narrative’s premise.

Books have the power to change your life. It hardly seems like a lesson I’d need to stress, but stories don’t always lend themselves to examining this in voluble and plot-related ways, so it’s a treasure to find it reinforced here. The way that Mouse describes the active art of reading to Joshua, during their first meeting, stands out as rather tender testimony in a work where so much is characterized by moral bankruptcy, greed and savagery. She assures him that, yes, books can take you everywhere, and against the proof of a cloistered, grey existence, the boy believes her. The result is a protagonist who contemplates Exupéry’s The Little Prince as a metaphor for ultimate escape, who regards Judah Weir as a live-action Man-Man from Naipaul’s Miguel Street. There may not be immediate solace to be derived in a life informed by literature, not if Joshua’s daily rigours are to be trusted. Still, reading offers the only consolation we can cling to, sometimes — the assurance that other beings in other places have suffered as much, or worse, than we; that all pain and all joy is relative on a vast, written sliding scale.

Can we ever stop paying for what, and whom, we’ve done wrong? Who gets to mitigate our sins, and who decides how our ethical compasses are calibrated? Is there redemption in repentance? The Repenters asks some of the hardest questions that fiction can put to us, and returns a bloodied basket of answers for us to pick from — and yes, the answers make sense in one light, but they cut at your palms in another. This is the work of the grittiest and most uncompromising storytelling, it seems: not merely to hold the mirror up to what we are, but to peer down the rabbit hole of all we might become, given provocation, misery, and a limitless credit card. By turns both chilling and comedic, Hosein’s novel presses us to take heed of whom we ask for forgiveness. They may or may not be listening.

You can download The Repenters for free, with the author’s permission, here. You can access a frequently updated list of Hosein’s other projects, and contact information, here.

K. Jared Hosein (1986 -…) has been working on his prose and poetry since his early teenage years. In 2009, he penned a poem entitled “The Wait is So, So Long” that would go on to be adapted as a short film that would be featured and win a Gold Key Award at the NY-based Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He frequently writes to the local newspapers but those pieces are only of political and sociological nature. Although he is currently employed as a Biology and Physics secondary school teacher, he writes fiction frequently to have a significant body of work, to build discipline and to create his own voice and style in the world of West Indian literature.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by K. Jared Hosein for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.

Author portrait by Portia Subran.

30. Missing Angel Juan by Francesca Lia Block

Published in 1995 by HarperTeen.

Deemed a Best Book/Best Pick by the American Library AssociationSchool Library Journal and The New York Public Library, among others.

“… I put the flower in a teacup and look at myself in the mirror I found on the street. I can hardly stand to see my face. Pinchy and hungry-looking. I don’t need a hummingbird around my neck for people to see I am searching for love.”

Witch Baby, snarly-haired drummer girl loner, doesn’t feel like she fits, not really… apart from the times when she’s making music or love or everyday magic with her big-dreaming boyfriend, Angel Juan. Angel keeps the confused, restlessly aching parts of Witch Baby from scattering into the abyss of the latter’s personal demons. He brings her as much tender solace as he does ungovernable fire, so when he announces that he must journey from Los Angeles, where the couple live merrily, to New York, as part of his own vision quest, the bottom falls out from Witch Baby’s world. She must find him, she swears to herself, because life without her anchor Juan is unbearable. With the blessing of her almost-mom Weetzie Bat, and armed with a camera for clear sight, Witch Baby follows her love to New York, where the quotidian glitter beckons differently. Companioned by her ghostly grandfather, Charlie, the pair scour the city, encountering a whirlwind of delight and disaster in not-so-equal measure, keeping the faith that Angel Juan will cross their path before it’s entirely too late.

Here is something to love best about Francesca Lia Block’s writing for young adults: it doesn’t condescend to young adults, which is ironically rare fare in a genre that ought to be highlighted for its compassionate understanding. Block trusts that hearts not straddling the full saddle of adulthood can still articulate, in startling relief, all that they hold, as witnessed in this early letter from Witch Baby to her distant inamorato.

“Dear Angel Juan,

You used to guard my sleep like a panther biting back my pain with the edge of your teeth. You carried me into the dark dream jungle, loping past the hungry vines, crossing the shiny fish-scale river. We left my tears behind in a churning silver pool. We left my sorrow in the muddy hollows. When I woke up you were next to me, damp and matted, your eyes hazy, trying to remember the way I clung to you, how far down we went.

Was the journey too far, Angel Juan? Did we go too far?”

This isn’t parochial writing for young people, either — we’re gifted access to a panorama of intricacies that knit relationships together, or else wrench them apart:  two people loving each other is incomprehensible work, Block seems to be advocating, even with the full current of adoration coursing betwixt their hearts.

A cursory skimming of the novel’s plot might suggest that Witch Baby is 1995’s answer to the dependent Donna — a  comely young woman concerned principally with the acquisition and maintenance of a male partner. Witch Baby isn’t Bella Swan with a more bohemian title, however. Quite the contrary: the former’s observant rollerbladings through New York, and the ways in which she interfaces with the clues lined up for her personal edification, are engineered most tenderly to prompt an alternative ending for young people: that partner-prompted identification is no way to declare your definitive personage.

Block’s writing is luminescently unapologetic, not just in message but also in delivery: it is suffused and star-studded with multiple sonnets to beauty stuffed in each paragraph. Yes, to the angular reader, this lyricism will weigh heavily. The accusation that she writes from behind a gauzy, magically realist smokescreen has hounded the Weetzie Bat books, and in truth, the glitz and the diction-decoration is no less evident in this fourth installment. For some, this will represent too-muchness, and the reading will represent pulling factual teeth. For others, there will be revelry, merry traipsing through a heavily-imaged carnival. The language and the life it inhabits on the page are technicolour, certainly, but I’d posit that the aforementioned smokescreen doesn’t exist. If there is a barrier between the sober world of absolutes, and the way in which Block uses words, consider it instead to be a perfumed veil, a safety net for the suspension of your disbelief.

“A conspicuous love of vegetarian food runs through the book like a peaceful hippie emblem,” I wrote in the margins of my journal while reading. It’s true: Witch Baby’s family lives off their cornucopia of love and non-meat products, feasting on “vegetarian lasagna, edible flower salad and fruit-juice-sweetened apple pie” the night that Angel Juan breaks his terrain-altering news. The Jamaican cab driver who transports Witch Baby to her first destination in New York tells her that she won’t find many angels in that meat-packing district, with its implied dream-crushing, carnivorous redolence. Indeed, the consumption of a deliciously meaty hamburger is pivotal in Witch Baby’s squaring off against a soul crushing nemesis. At first, I was inclined to think of this as a little… precious. This waned, though, upon the consideration that the author’s prerogative, maybe particularly with young adult writing, is to shape the sort of world that best inspires our ardent commitment to living. If this means a world of nutty Guru Chews, armloads of fresh produce and honey-flavoured tea, one could arguably do worse.

What makes Witch Baby better than Bella Swan? Maybe it’s the fact that the sounds of drumming makes her come alive, even when she’s crushed beneath the weight of missing her beloved. It might have something to do with her ruminations on a pair of Egyptian mummies, her wondering

“if that king and queen ever screamed at each other and cried in the night with pain and desire or if they always looked so sleek and lazy-lotus-eyed.”

Perhaps it’s linked to the ways in which she can find inspiration winking behind and before the lens of her camera, the way she thinks about time and space, the fact that she curates bulletin boards of universal suffering. Missing Angel Juan can’t be said to show Witch Baby at her best, since it plummets her into the messy business of personal landscaping. Instead, it offers a portrait of a girl in the full-throated glow of her electric, sexy drumbeat of self-discovery. This could be said to be the writer’s most nimbly-articulated message, the one she hopes you will carry close to your chest, stitched into the folds of your skirts: that Witch Baby is beautiful, that so are you.

29. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Published in 2008. This Edition: Vintage Books, 2011.

Matt King’s life, all things considered, could do with a major overhaul. His wife, Joanie, has been in a coma for twenty-three days, courtesy of a boat-racing accident. Matt finds himself flounderingly out of depth in the management of his two daughters: rebellious, drug-recovering Alex, and exuberant, highly peer-pressurized Scottie. Lurking in the background of this familial implosion is the weight of a decision Matt must make: as principal trustee to a collective of Hawaii’s wealthy, royalty-descended landowners, he must say to which highest bidder huge tracts of heritage land should be sold. As time ticks by, and Joanie’s future prospects look increasingly grim, Alex stuns Matt with the revelation that Joanie has been unfaithful to him for some time. Bundling up his daughters, Matt takes them on an unexpected trip to locate the man Joanie possibly loves more than him, so he, too, can pronounce final farewells at her bedside.

It isn’t hard to fathom the reasons why this novel inspired a touching, thoughtful film adaptation. (As you can see, the book’s cover features a haunted George Clooney gazing into the distance, perched on Hawaiian littoral, flanked by sandcastles.) This is one of those books that reads as though there’s a script already imbedded in the prose, waiting to be lifted, licensed and imaged for the screen. Almost every good point I can make about the visual imagery of the descriptions tie in to how stunningly well they salute the mind’s eye. Witness, for instance, this picture of Scottie, who, having gone on an impromptu mini-adventure with her father to Alex’s boarding school, arrives decidedly the worse for wear.

“Scottie looks thrilled by the situation. Her red sores are bright in the hall’s fluorescent light. Her T-shirt says VOTE FOR PEDRO, whatever that means, and her hair is sticking up in places and matted down in others. In one section near her ear, the hair is held together by some unknown substance. She had fruit punch on the plane, and her lips and chin are stained the colour of raw meat.”

The images Hemmings conjures are consistently entertaining, moulded and primed for dark, honest humour, as well as aching sadness. The most notable include impressions of Matt’s difficult, likeable daughters, but also of Matt himself, and the way he perceives everyone and everything around him — tourists; his daughters’ cohorts; hospital staff; the ways in which other people perceive him; his fellow landowning descendants; the shifting structures of Hawaiian landscapes. Matt is a faithful archivist of the place he’s from, the place he loves, and his daily photobooks of observation afford rich, deeply funny insights into a place typically thought of in terms of multicoloured leis and roasted pig cookouts on pristine beachfront.

We think of the impossible caverns of love and grief as thorny terrain to demystify, and perhaps some of the best fiction shies away from putting such things into quantifiable, qualifiable terms. The opposite approach is explored in these pages, with Matt the compass for one man’s perambulations through the messy business of re-evaluating one’s love while simultaneously preparing for the worst. This isn’t to suggest that our protagonist is the only person in the novel whose experiences aren’t linear. Conversely, Matt’s interactions with his daughters, with his in-laws, with Alex’s sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, Sid, all work like character references in a stuffed docket for emotional complexity. No one loves in singular colours; no one tolerates loss on a full palate of either beatitudes or vices. In one of my favourite passages of the novel, Matt reflects on a rare, treasured memory: his perpetually self-sufficient wife seeking comfort in his arms, immediately following a harrowing trauma.

“She sank down to the rocks, pulling me down with her, and then she lunged into my chest and wept. We were in the most awkward position on those rocks, but I remember not being able to move, as though the slightest movement might upset either her or the moment. Even though she was sobbing in my arms, it was a nice moment for me, to be stronger than her, to be needed by her, and to see her so fragile.”

The torment truly sinks in when Matt contemplates, right on the heels of this, the excruciating possibility that Joanie has dismantled her armour thusly for the man of her affair, too… and, most damning of all, there’s no reliable way of confronting either of them. Matt, like so many people stricken with the dead weight of an infidelity involving two silent sources, is saddled with a lifetime’s worth of maddening, perhaps debilitating hypotheticals.

Immersing yourself in Matt’s bleak and blackly comic inner monologues is as thrilling as it is because it grants you the relief of uncensored permission: to feel fully all those ideas that aren’t politically correct, to hate your children and love them; to hate your wife and love her; to want to be the best person and the worst all bound up in one festering, grinning knot of humanness.

Reading The Descendants is a shotgun ride in the author’s dodgy pickup truck, skirting some emotional landmines, rattling full-on into others. This, really, is what I love best about the novel: it confronts the non-poetic shit storm that reality quite often resembles, without any fumblings towards a sense of… literary rightness. There aren’t any perfect similes for pain, or, if there are, Hemmings doesn’t concern herself with trying to unearth them for our benefit. Truly, cosmically horrific things are as likely to happen to you as they are to the person alongside you in the bus.

How you feel about this book will depend largely, I think, on whether or not you require, or secretly long for, a primer on how to navigate life successfully, with minor bruising. If you find it hard to fathom that there can be one good way to be a worthy father, lover, landowner, descendant, or decent human being, then you’ll be hard-pressed to read something more organically attuned to the general state of loving, grieving and every curious, maddening human state from here to there.

I pledged to give away all the books I bought myself in 2012. I’m giving this book to my exuberant and all-round excellent friend and fellow writer, Leshanta, whose work I’ll be featuring at Novel Niche in a future coming to you shortly. 

28. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Published in 2010 by Dutton Books.

When I first saw Will Grayson, Will Grayson, winking at me from the hardcover bookshelves, I don’t know why I thought it would be science fiction. Perhaps it was the prismatic, kaleidoscopic-reminiscent imagery on the front cover that made me imagine interstellar journeys. Even when I read the front jacket cover’s blurb, the description of fate, delivering both Will Graysons to the same surprising crossroads, led me to conjure up non-terrestrial possibilities. As I read on, I realized that the novel was decidedly non-speculative… but not an iota less fantastic.

Will Grayson, probably best known to his fellow high schoolers as loyal friend to the irrepressible, unabashedly gay Tiny Cooper, has curated a couple simple rules for getting through life relatively unscathed. They are: “1. Don’t care too much. 2. Shut up.” Both devoted to his friend and increasingly bemused by him, Will finds himself struggling to make sense of his role in the shadows that Tiny’s larger than life influence casts. His uncertainty only seems to mount as he wrestles with inconvenient feelings for a girl he maybe likes, maybe doesn’t: she of the quiet cleverness, the parallel music-crush on Neutral Milk Hotel, and the ultra-awesome smile, Jane. In another school, another Chicago town, will grayson, anti-capital letter user, anti-everything-ist, makes it through the tedium of his days by way of furtive online conversations with isaac, a guy he’s never met in person, a guy who gets will on every seeming level of importance. will keeps isaac a solemn secret, even from his more-or-less best friend, maura, a goth girl whose dependence on will runs deeper than he can initially suspect. Will Grayson and will grayson are seeking out entirely different things when their paths converge in the unlikeliest, potentially most scandalous of places, and their lives take on unimagined dimensions, expanding to include new allegiances, bewildering affections, heart-singing revelations… and the most bejewelled, glitteringly decked out high school musical of All Time.

This is a laudable book for many reasons, principal among them the ways in which it de-exoticizes the story of the gay high school student. I expect that there’ll be some opposition to this notion. “Who could be a more outlandish character than Tiny Cooper?” one might ask. It’s true; they don’t get much more delightfully camp, more technicoloured-in with non-heteronormative pride than Tiny does. He revels in his romantic and lifestyle choices, and makes no apologies for them… but this, the authors seem to be saying, isn’t even strictly the point. The point resides in the suggestion that Tiny needn’t be an anomaly, that writing about the lives and loves of any number of Tinys should really be par for the course in capturing the richness and diversity of the young adult’s life, gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise inclined. Tiny himself, in a candid conversation with will grayson, puts it best:

“tiny: you know what? i’m totally at peace with being big-boned. and i was gay before i knew what sex was. it’s just who i am, and that’s great. i don’t want to be thin or conventionally beautiful or straight or brilliant. no, what i really want – is to be appreciated.”

It isn’t just Tiny who struggles with the desire to be embraced for who he is, for what he brings to the table – every character of note, including but not limited to the Wills – feels this instinct deeply. In fact, they feel all their feelings deeply, and the authors never shy away from documenting those feelings with grace, humour and irrepressible honesty. Here’s an example of that unflinching candour from will grayson, as he contemplates Tiny’s declaration of a necessary “mental health day”.

“i think the idea of a ‘mental health day is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or another, unless we choose to bring a gun to school or ruin the morning announcements with a suicide.”

The truly beautiful thing? So much of the book is this refreshingly forthright, no matter which Will is narrating. I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson like a nostalgic primer on what it felt like to be marginalized, misunderstood, poorly-quoted, confused, sexually uncertain and bursting with a thousand intense ideas, in my teenage years. Green and Levithan don’t, to their credit, ever explicitly state that your life becomes better when you become an adult. They don’t even pretend that the things you cared about when you’re a teenager will evanesce in importance when you’re saddled with a full-time job and greying hairs. They concentrate on the absolute, inviolable sanctity of your God/dess and the Universe-given right to feel the feelings you’re feeling, no excuses, no regrets. There’s no need to sweep those passionate outbursts beneath the rug, no need to objectify your silences, be they awkward or serene: every bit of you, young person, is valid, has meaning, is worth something on this planet.

In a genre of literature stifled with romantic considerations, (many of them poorly worked out and dubiously contextualized) a book like this is a saving grace. There are concerns of the heart in these pages, to be sure – how the heart breaks, how the heart resists love while plummeting towards it, how the heart seeks like-beating hearts out… but the novel’s epicentre isn’t carnally-propelled, and this is a relief. It would be more accurate to say that the writers throw themselves into tides and currents of the whole heart, not just the chamber that pines for a boyfriend or girlfriend. These are affairs of the heart in their baffling, million moods per minute-ness, making this book required reading for young adults, and those who know that being boldly and beautifully sixteen is just a state of mind away.

26. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Published in 2011 by Vintage Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2011.

Ava Bigtree can’t help but feel like she’s floundering, rather than flourishing, in her deceased mother Hilola’s footsteps. Hilola was the feature attraction show-stopper at the Bigtree’s family-owned and operated alligator wrestling theme park, “Swamplandia!”, nestled on an island little more than an adventurer’s spit of a hundred acres, off the Floridian mainland. “Mainland” is a geographical state that the Bigtree children—Ava; her awkwardly academic brother Kiwi; her eerily disengaged sister Osceola—have come to both desire and decry. The swamp, the theatre of routine and spectacle, of sold-out crowds clamouring in the stands, the moods and movements of their alligator brood (each animal named Seth, to avoid ambiguity): this is the life to which they’ve been born. However, when Hilola Bigtree succumbs, mundanely and sadly, to cancer, “Swamplandia!” falls on hard times. First Kiwi, then the Chief (the children’s gruffly well-intentioned father) head to the mainland for reasons both disparate and bonded, leaving the girls, the alligators, and the island to each other.

Much has been made of Swamplandia! since it was published, and it’s easy to see why—the novel is a quirk-factory. The ingredients for a tall-taled yarn are stacked sky-high, lined up for our perusal without even a shred of self-effacement in the prose. Nothing seems tongue in cheek or inversely satirical about the host of Seths, the fantastic Bigtree establishment ensconced within the swamp, the undead visitations of Osceola’s supernatural gentleman callers. To swallow this narrative arc, you won’t need suspension of disbelief so much as an utter willingness to park your reliance of concrete allegories outside. This novel isn’t for the reader who dismisses weirdness; quite the contrary… if you’re not inclined to wade through the inlets that lead to the sound of surreality, then this isn’t the best way to kick off your year in reading. Adherents to the sweet, cerebral cult of oddities, however, will find the book gratifying, akin to a curious girl’s fictional compendium of island-within-island navigation, of gritty, unsentimental survivalism.

I have read few books within recent memory wherein the author so skilfully constructed her setting as integral to the work’s beating heart. In Swamplandia!, the swamp is far more than a mere cardboard backdrop against which a plastic alligator or two is positioned. The landscape is capable of eliciting fear, awe or grudging respect (or all three), depending on which season you confront it. Early on in the story, Ava’s description of persistent bad weather coincides with the theme park’s declining fortunes.

“Our swamp got blown to green bits and reassembled, daily, hourly. The wet season was a series of land-versus-water skirmishes: marl turned to chowder and shunted the baby-green cocoplums into the sea; tides maniacally revised the coastlines. Whole islands caught fire from lightning strikes, and you could sometimes watch deer and marsh rabbits leaping into the sea of saw grass on gasps of smoke.”

When the plot becomes dense with dreadful adventure, much later on, as Ava, in the company of the enigmatic, leather-jacketed Bird Man, embarks on a quest to rescue her sister from the dark maw of the underworld, the descriptions of the islands teeming around our tenacious narrator threaten to steal the show. The nearer Ava draws towards the Stygian wilderness in which she believes Osceola to be trapped with her paranormal beau, Louis Thanksgiving, the more dreadfully fascinating her surroundings become.

“I was seeing new geometries of petals and trees, white saplings that pushed through the peat like fantailing spires of coral, big oaky trunks that went wide-arming into the woods … A large egretlike bird with true fuschia eyes and cirrusy plumage went screeching through the canopy.”

If landscape in Swamplandia! can be considered a pliable, inventive entity, then the tridented, oft-unspoken concord among the Bigtree progeny often feels and reads like a ghost character who haunts the pages, howling with love and angst. Ava’s frankly inquisitive absorption of the secrets and foibles in both her brother and sister’s nature make her a talented voyeuse. The perils into which she dashes, seemingly uncaring of her personal welfare, are prompted by the fiercest of sibling devotions, and yet, very little that is voluminous or fulsome distinguishes the talks that Ava trades with Osceola and Kiwi. Their adoration is made to stretch thinly over mysterious swamp islands, into the cheerless concrete of mainland life. In depicting it, Russell reminds the reader of the craggy heartlands of human communication, of how, even (or especially) among those who love each other best, familial adoration is unerringly represented by a snarling, non-communicative beast, one who skulks in a cave, one whose feelings run too deep to fathom.

It is, however, in the narrative split between Ava and Kiwi that the structure of the novel falters, diminishing a sustained sense of reading pleasure by forcing unsolicited somersaults from one compelling character, to one decidedly less so. This shift is taken up when Kiwi heads to the mainland, his act of teenagerly defiance to his father’s pipe dreamed notions of salvaging the future of “Swamplandia!”. For what he’s worth, Kiwi is not an unsatisfying character. His self-imposed blend of awkwardness and haughtiness, his massive disconnect from mainland life meeting his puppyish desire to ingratiate himself into the best ideas of his full potential: these make for good reading, and hold the bulwark of levity for much of the novel’s narration. Anyone’s who’s felt the weight of being a smart outsider hang heavy on their shoulders will relate to what Kiwi goes through as he endures the undignified employ at the subterranean-themed rival amusement centre, The World of Darkness. Witness, for instance, as poor Kiwi’s inner sufferer-scholar flares up, following the unwarranted opprobrium of a superior.

“Kiwi could feel his intelligence leap like an anchored flame inside him. His whole body ached at the terrible gulf between what he knew himself to be capable of (neuroscience, complicated opthalmological surgeries, air-traffic control) and what he was actually doing.”

Indeed, reading the ‘World’ segments are grimly, wit-stingingly winning: the setting is described as so mock-garish, so ostentatiously macabre, so unaware of its own enormous kitsch, that it prompts comparisons with similar, comically absurd urban designs. A short story featuring Kiwi’s exploits and misadventures at the ‘World’ would go over spectacularly, but even for all his tragicomic fumblings towards manhood, Kiwi’s narration is eclipsed utterly by Ava’s.

Perhaps what I like best about Swamplandia! is its audacious ambition. There is always some distance, in varying increments, of how outstanding a thing wants to be, of how ardent its desire to overwhelm you, compared to the impact, the force of actual resonance it generates. Respectfully, there is more distance between ambition and impact in this kaleidoscopic swamp-romp than, say, the illumination of other, greater first novels. That said, (bearing in mind that even a poor work of art, which this is not, usually requires patience, effort and devotion), Russell’s work here is both charming and challenging, beautiful in a graphic, grounded light. It introduces us to a pragmatic heroine fighting for a happy story, or at least, a safe one, while a wilderness of reconditely-curved fates clutch at her ankles like vine creepers. If there were no other fine hallmark of writing prowess in Swamplandia!, Ava Bigtree on her own would be worth the price of the paperback/hardcover/Kindle copy. She’s the sort of little girl whom grown women ought aspire to de-age themselves towards.

25. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This review is affectionately and irreverently dedicated to Joshua X. Thank you for introducing me to Patrick Bateman, and thank you even more for not doing so in person.

Published in 1991 by Vintage Books, New York.

You’ve met Patrick Bateman. He’s the guy you had Waldorf salad/ apéritifs/ a candid sauna conversation/ a three course dinner/ a tray of Bellinis with, last Friday/ weekend/ fortnight/ financial quarter, at Indochine/ Dorsia/ 21/ Tunnel/ Pastels/ the Hamptons, with… oh who remembers, really? He’s a member of your yacht club/ exclusive gym/ Harvard graduating class, and you get your ties/ pocket squares/ tans/ dry cleaning from the same places. If you’re an attractive, elegantly dressed woman of a certain social set, you’ve probably shared his bed. If you’re an unsure yet comely prostitute, or an ecstasy-addled socialite, you’ll probably die in it.

But do you know Patrick Bateman?

He is handsome; there can be no denying this. He is superbly educated, outstandingly networked, exquisitely attired. His apartment, housed in the same building in which Tom Cruise owns the penthouse suite, is an interior designer’s wet dream. He has friends. He has money. He is… he is… a damned unreliable narrator, and why? Patrick Bateman is insane. You have, in all likelihood, never encountered a principal narrator whose word you could trust less, and this is, at once, outstandingly written and utterly bemusing—a twinned pleasure/migraine to parse. The novel’s plot, which in terms of thickness could be described as bareboned at best, is delivered to us entirely through Bateman, a Manhattanite yuppie businessman, as he navigates the breakneck-paced, agenda-laden, hyperactive worlds of commerce and pleasure that dictate the speed and settings at which he consumes, makes love, arbitrates, teases vagrants, and contemplates murder. As the novel progresses, Bateman’s brutal inner monologues morph into equally misanthropic slayings, several of which are highlighted and lovingly recounted to the reader in high-definition detail. Ultimately, our urbane protagonist becomes less and less capable of neatly compartmentalizing his serial killer and business savant personas, and as the body count grimly rises, so too does his paranoia, despair, desolation and impeccable cruelty.

One of the most striking facets of Bateman’s world is that it is inundated with a never-ceasing stream of conversation, a steady, witty, charming flow of dazzling one-liners and emphatic recommendations. It is a world in which no one listens to anyone else. Indeed, Bateman might be one of the few people who does any real listening. He might be the only person he knows who listens. It isn’t that he never shares the worrying compulsions within him, either. He quite frequently bares his… er, soul… on the subject of his insatiable blood-lust, but on the incredibly rare occasions that his words penetrate his audience’s mire of self-indulgence, his confessions are met with distracted humour and prompt dismissal. In one interchange, when his romantic partner for much of the novel, Evelyn, gushes enthusiastically about her visions of wedding splendour for them, Patrick effusively responds with a description of the ideal firearms he’d bring to their nuptials, with which to slaughter Evelyn’s immediate family. He receives no response to this other than his girlfriend’s continued pre-bridal salivations. In another, particularly mirthful scenario, when asked by a vapid model he is vaguely interested in bedding about his occupation, he shares that he is “into, oh, murders and executions, mostly”, after which, predictably, his companion asks him if he enjoys the work. The establishment of this savage, smirking landscape, in which no one practices human interaction without artifice, provides the perfect canvas against which Bateman lets the blood of so many flow. Perhaps our protagonist might be less deranged than he is, if he existed in a convivial, earnest setting, perhaps not… but there is no denying that it is infinitely easier to committ atrocities against someone if they have never, despite their honeyed insistence, truly given a damn about who you are.

Easton Ellis is arguably at his finest when he allows us to peer into the ragged veil of Bateman’s flinching, badly bruised humanity. Any passable horror story will be strewn with as many depictions of smouldering carnage as can be forced between its dripping pages; few are capable of drawing out our sympathy and begrudging acceptance of the similarities between ourselves and the monster that crawls across the chapters with smoking entrails for his necklace. Bateman works as well as he does because he is crafted with multilayered complexity, with unerring attention to detail, with as much brittle amusement as raw terror. In one of his final executions of the novel, in the midst of a failing attempt to wrangle a culinary delight from a section of corpse, our murderer slips into plummeting despair.

“And later my macabre joy sours and I’m weeping for myself, unable to find solace in any of this, crying out, sobbing “I just want to be loved,” cursing the earth and everything I have been taught: principles, distinctions, choices, morals, compromises, knowledge, unity, prayer — all of it was wrong, without any final purpose. All of it came down to was: die or adapt. I imagine my own vacant face, the disembodied voice coming from its mouth: These are terrible times.

This is a remarkable work of fiction. It might be most remarkable for how much your conflicted, uneasily mottled reactions to the depiction of its protagonist will render your introspective ruminations, your late-night diary scribblings, your smoothly hip but really self-conscious Facebook posts, not just of the book, not just of this genre of literature, but of and on yourself. Patrick might well become your antihero nonpareil, your reverse answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”. You will not only be disgusted and sickened by him, startlingly enough. You will be touched by his overtures of gentility, by his saccharine daydreamings of ambling through the park with his secretary Jean, buying and releasing balloons into the air. You will laugh uproariously at his expense. (I challenge you to go into a Chinese drycleaners’ and not dissolve into hysterics after softly whispering “Bleach-ee”, with just a hint of threat in your voice). You’ll laugh at Bateman because of every one of his thousand nervous tics, his ridiculously overblown reactions to perfectly common occurences, his manic stops and starts, his revolting yet astoundingly funny pranks (coating a much-pissed-upon urinal cake in cheap chocolate, then proffering it to Evelyn over dinner). Then, when it dawns on you that you’re laughing at a man whose mind is the wasteland of serious dementia, a man desperately in need of a cornucopia of corrective drugs, you’ll ask yourself about your own sickness.

While reading American Psycho, it was easy enough for me to commiserate, in the abstract, with popular opinion surrounding its release at the end of the 1980s. Reviled, condemned, near-categorically panned, it was described as being too vulgar, too misogynistically self-serving to be worthy of the worst pornography. It would be unfair to wipe some of the mud from these allegations by theorizing that the novel was written before its time. When, one wonders, would be ‘the right time’ for a work of fiction concerned with the graphic satirical exploration of a young  lunatic, simultaneously trapped and liberated by the consumerist, capitalistic framework of fiscal success and personal nihilism that is his life? Perhaps there is no time in which such a book could have been written which would have ensured it a stellar reception—perhaps, when you’ve read the book, you will think this is more of a coup de grâce than a criticism. You might not be happy living in a society where the only thing a publication such as this merits is rousing applause. It would mean, one supposes, that either no one got the point, or, worse, everyone did, and endorsed it unflaggingly for the wrong reasons.

Almost every awful thing you have heard about American Psycho is true. It is nauseatingly graphic about murder, rape, torture, cannibalism, necrophilia, animal assault, and the perverse, detached delight that the perpetrator of these crimes takes in committing them. It will not comfort you. It is not a comforting book, but, as Patrick himself is always reminding us, these are not times for the innocent—and if they weren’t, on the cusp of the 1990s, they are indubitably not so, now.

I maintain, however, that Patrick Bateman should not terrify you.

Somewhere, even as you read this, even as you gingerly contemplate adding this book to your “must-read” (or “never-read”) list, there is an improbably beautiful man in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, wearing A. Testoni loafers, crossing the street to go to work, where he will be greeted by a receptionist he believes, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, to be madly in love with him. His body is a wonderland. He grows weak in the knees at the sight of expensively manufactured business cards, and the thought of not being able to secure a dinner reservation at the town’s most exclusive restaurant could, quite likely, bring tears to his eyes. He is frequently, ruthlessly cruel to homeless people, and demands abortions of the girls he’s gotten pregnant without so much as batting a well-rested eyelid. Last Hallowe’en, he wore one of his suits, covered in a plastic overcoat, and carried a chainsaw, to go to an upscale party as Patrick Bateman, because Patrick Bateman is his non-ironic hero. He has no natural sympathy, proclivity for kindness, no moral compass, no scruples, and no criminal record.

That should terrify you.