1.17.2010

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan



A long time ago, I took a creative writing class once (it was terrible, btw, but I'm afraid I can't blame my poor fiction skills on that...). Our instructor was a great believer in exercises. You know, like "Write a 26 line poem where each line starts with a different letter," or "write a story about Robin Hood, set in the old west."

Well, one of his favorite tricks was to take two random words or phrases, and make us write a story that combines them. Like 'treadmill' and 'pickles'. Or 'pistol' and 'nun'. I hated these exercises, probably in part because I wasn't very good at them. In fact, I'm not sure ANYONE was good at them. There was always someone who THOUGHT they'd done a fine job, and they'd stand up and you'd listen, and go 'why yes, that story DOES sound just like you were finding a way to include nuns and pistols in the same story beause some strange, wicked god told you you had to.'

Ms Lanagan, I think, was the exception. Ms Lanagan must have been very good at this game. 'Clown' and 'Sniper'. 'Accordion' and 'Progress'. 'Pretty, Pretty Princess' and 'French Revolution'. Because each of these stories, as strange, sometimes disturbing, as they are, feels at the same time convincing. Cohesive.

Of course, that makes it sound like Ms Lanagan's purpose is simply virtuosity, that these stories come across as clever or smug - they don't. Reading Ms Lanagan is more like Synaptic Tango - Invigorating and exhausting, strangely intoxicating, moving the synapses in ways you didn't expect you were capable, and absolutely gorgeous to participate in. Ms Lanagan takes a long step into a place where clowns and snipers belong together, and then dips you down in a slow, hard arc of the mental back, and murmurs 'There now, what do you see?' One can almost imagine the metaphorical rose in her teeth.

And the footwork is mesmerizing in this book. The first story ('La Brea Tarpits' and 'Fried Green Tomatoes') is one of the most gut-wrenching, vivid stories I have ever read, ever, somehow managing to simultaneously be as sickeningly horrific as Edgar Allen Poe and as starkly kind as Willa Cather. Yowlinin ('killer weasel' and 'caste system') hides combines a heavy handed sense of injustice with the gentle tickling reminder of the feeling of falling in love. Every story in here does this, reminding me with the violence and subtelty of a tango, that these conflicting things - love and fear, friendship and intolerance, blood and soul - exist, and HAVE to exist, in the same world, in the same instants of life, no matter how much we might like to imagine them forming separate narratives.

(Image by Sean Dreilinger)

11 comments:

Amanda said...

Okay some of those descriptions make me happy I still have many other stories to read in this book. btw, what combination would you give to Sweet Pippit?

Nymeth said...

Synaptic tango! My metaphor was walking into a room blindfolded, but I like yours much better.

Amanda said...

"Walking into a room blindfolded"

For some reason my mind translated this to that you were walking into a room wearing ONLY a blindfold. I wondered what sort of reading experience this really will be...

Chris said...

Gah, I want to read this more and more with every review I read. This was an amazing review, Jason and I can't wait to read this. I've been wanting to dive back into the world of Margo Lanagan ever since I finished Tender Morsels. I don't think I was ready to leave her yet when I finished that book...really need to start this one!

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - It's really that good, I think you'll like it. Sweet Pippit is one of the more straightforward stories, but I'd say "Elephant" and "Scarlet Pimpernel"

Ms Nymeth - Oh, I loved your review! - I kind of felt like mine was flippant and self-congratulatory in comparison. Thankfully (Amanda) I never felt naked in the book. Blind, yes. Naked, no. ;)

Mr. Chris - Of all the bloggers I know who haven't read this, you are probably the one I would put my Vegas money on liking this book. It's like... if Chris was a book of short stories, he'd be Black Juice. Except not naked. I hope. I mean, nothing personal. That would just be uncomfortable :D

Nymeth said...

Hey! I did not mean only a blindfold :P

Emily said...

I already wanted to read this before your review, but now I am super-intrigued, Jason! Thanks for the great post.

And I hated those arbitrary-seeming exercises too. Although, we now play a fun board game called "Spinergy" which is basically exactly that except done for laughs. "Write a scene from a police procedural involving the words lilac, gestation, and jazzercise." Usually results in people rolling on the floor. :-)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - *raises eyebrow*

Ms Emily - I'm SO adding that my Amazon wishlist :D

Rebecca Reid said...

I think it sounds like Lanagan is too emotional heart-breaking for me. Sounds powerful and well written, but I'm a bit scared.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Reid - She definitely CAN break your heart. For me, I need my heart broken once in a while, and Ms Lanagan does it in a way, that you feel good about it putting it back together in the end (rather than just, say, a book that rips you p for the pure voyeuristic appeal of seeing someone in pain). But, of course, pain is a very personal thing, so I won't generalize that EVERYone should read it...

Chris said...

So I am clothed Black Juice...hmmm...I can live with that!