This is one of a troika of reviews simultaneously posted, without prior discussion, on this blog, on The OF Blog, and Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream, with an additional post on Omnivoracious, the Amazon book blog.
“The ’90s Pacific Northwest is refracted through a dark mirror, where meth and madness hash it out in the woods. A band of hobo vampire junkies roam the blighted landscapeâ€”trashing supermarket breakrooms, praying to the altar of Poison Idea and GG Allin at basement rock shows, crashing senior center pancake breakfastsâ€”locked in the thrall of Robitussin trips and their own wild dreams. A girl with drug-induced ESP…searches for her disappeared foster sister along ‘The Highway That Eats People,’ stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks’ ‘Bob’ and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl.” – The Orange Eats Creeps, cover copy
With The Orange Eats the Creeps by first-time novelist Grace Krilanovich, we’re not in Wonderland anymore: we’re fully through the Looking Glass and out the other side. One of my favorite novelists, Steve Erickson, writes in his introduction, “The exhilaration of such a novel is nearly beyond calculation. If a new literature is at hand then it might as well begin here.” But I find his associating the novel with the Decadents and the Beats to be perhaps more helpful, and it’s in these connections that the novel began to make sense for me. Take, for example, this early paragraph:
“Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”
Or, “We not only devour each other, but we bite, hard. We’re blood-hungry teenagers; our rage knows no bounds and coagulates the pulse of our victims on contact. we devour them, too; the bodies of mortals become drained when they reach our fangs. Our cause is nothing…I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now. I ride the rails with a bunch of immoral shitheads, hopping freight trains, secreted away in rail cars across this country. We have no home, no parents. I can’t remember being a child, maybe I never was one. But I’m sure I’ll never die; I get older, my body stays the same. My spine breaks and then gets back together. I have the Hepatitis, I give it to everyone, but it never will actually get me. Our kind doesn’t die from anything, all we do is die all the time.”
Or, “The city smelled like a wet paper bag. That great big dirty rag hung up in the sky, casting a shadow over the middle of town. A motel was strangely and inexplicably equipped with a smokestack and it spit streams of pigeon-shit colored smoke up into the sky.”
Rimbaud, Huysmans, Kiernan, Brite–they’re all in there, along with a very dark, almost malevolent sense of humor. Luckily, the author doesn’t hamstring the text by trying to pull back, trying to make the narrator seem nice at any point or non-judgmental, or even the text itself.
The novel also has an attachment to both specific detail of a sometimes disturbing kind—rendered in a way that highlights this disturbance but by sheer dint of being so well-defined makes it also compelling and at times oddly beautiful—and surprising changes of direction and emphasis within paragraphs and within pages.
For example, the narrator indulges in a brief reverie about seagulls…”vague, blurry pods some distance overhead appearing out of the vapor, emerging as fuzzy flecks out of black, hundreds of them tossing up so much racket, visually too with the lame half-falling way they fly. I was sure something horrible had happened to produce this; perhaps a giant dumpster had been disturbed a mile or so off, behind a Safeway, a huge noise in itself, where the gulls had become increasingly upset to scatter like flecks of ash from an amoral fire.”…which is followed by, “In other news, historically speaking, I originally turned vampire on my fourteenth birthday three years ago, as a symptom of, or maybe a response to, things getting really bad at home.” Such juxtapositions not only create a kind of lovely absurdism but, in terms of fleshing out a character that can sustain a novel, do an excellent job of conveying narrator-as-teen-girl.
All of this—the description, the juxaposition of the real and the surreal—also begins to make the reader see the world anew, begin to think that perhaps our gaze is too jaded and that were Earth another planet and we visitors to it, we might see our urban spaces in this way. We might, in fact, understand the true ugliness of them; how much do we edit out?
As for other characters, there’s a sense of men as predators that invests the novel with unease and a distinct point of view. Men are generally obstacles to get around, threats to avoid or overcome, or sources of short-term security or satisfaction. Some observations are judgmentally hilarious and transform the real world into something stranger and more absurdist: “Truckers are mustachioed weirdos. They sleep in tiny apartments wedged between their big-ass engine and whatever they’ve got hitched back there. They settle into these metal cubes of gassy, local air with maybe a small TV and square blankets and just wait it out with all their lumber chained up behind them.”
It’s possibly the time at which I came to The Orange Eats Creeps, but in a way curiously similar to Proust—a writer about as different from Krilanovich as you can get—the novel carries you with it; you have to let the prose wash over you. Still, The Orange Eats Creeps is an urgent novel–in the best Decadent tradition, it is describing the underbelly, and documents the disease and filth of society, with the beauty of its language comes from tackling ugly things head-on. It’s visceral, tactile, disturbing, and thankfully not in any sense like the kind of “moral fiction” praised by John Gardner. (Fiction has no responsibility to be of use, to be political, to be social, to be sociable, to be anything than some reflection of some version of a truth.)
There’s, as mentioned, then, that strange beauty you find at the heart of the best surrealist and decadent texts, descriptions both effective and deliberately over the top like “Their collective misery built a house of flames in the middle of the forest…a tent of burning fibers braided through with suffering. The corpulent membrane blew up like a balloon and sat empty like an incubator of death trapped at the bottom of the trees—which hissed, Remember, it’s black, it’s always black.” In some ways, it feels like what would happen if the short story writer Kelly Link went nuts, developed a insatiable appetite for visionary horror fiction, and then became a devotee of William Burroughs. It also has a texture that shares commonalities with visionary painters like Myrtle Vondamitz III. (Not to mention, some confluence with odd indie comics creators who tend toward the boschian.)
By now you may have noticed I haven’t spoken much about the plot of The Orange Eats Creeps, and perhaps that’s because the David Lynch description above is also apt. The excitement and originality of this novel are created by the reader’s explorations of it along the way, through the narrator’s unique perspective–her way of seeing (and not seeing) things, and the language, which continues to surprise and challenge long after you’ve finished the book.
“The things you’ve made–your creations, little minions, little lumps of cloth, little masks—will leave you. You can’t really own them even though they are shadows of your body. Symptoms that will be shed, forming the residue of your life on the surface of your existence, like all surfaces that your eyes have coated with their gaze. Like a snake shedding its skin, your residue forms a ghost image all over town, everywhere you have ever been. Don’t fight it. The ghost guide will lead you all over the world in connecting shadows, a chain link of dark felt memories.”