See, there’s this thing I can’t help doing when I’m reading a novel. More often that I really care to admit, I find myself picturing the author in the act of crafting the page I’m reading. I don’t mean to. In a way, it sort of breaks the spell of the story. In another way, though, it sort of deepens that illusion of connection between writer and reader.
Usually, I picture a man in an untidy office surrounded by piles of books and papers, pounding some old-fashioned manual typewriter while downing mugs of hot, bitter coffee, or a woman scrawling in an elegantly-bound journal, her tongue wetting the corner of her lips in some over-stuffed but cozy Victorian parlor. In her case, the mug is a china cup, and the bitter coffee is tea with twists of steam that carry the scent of lemon. Sometimes I picture a shabby coffee house, all bohemian chic, sometimes a quaint pub, and sometimes a library, with hardwood shelves straining under the weight of two many leather-bound books. More than a of my imaginary writers inhabit those spaces.
It makes me uncomfortable to picture Grace Krilanovich crafting The Orange Eats Creeps. I get these fleeting, nightmarish image of a young woman, wild-eyed and too thin, scrawling the words on the underside of a bridge somewhere, or on the walls of the kind of bar I’d be afraid to enter, even if I was cool enough to know how to find it. I picture her mainlining caffeine laced with meth, or something, some drug I’ve read about in newspapers, not for stimulation but to dull the fire of stranger substances screaming though her veins like electricity. Because you see, witnessing the birth of an new kind of literature, a utterly new way to pound and twist blocks of English into something mind-blastingly fresh, is a little frightening.
Mind, I don’t know anything at all about Grace Krilanovich. Maybe she is huddled safely in a library or parlor, sipping tea and tracing neat letters on fine, cream-colored paper. Her words though, they come from a stranger, harsher, lovelier, and all together original place that is three parts in-your-face and one part heartbreak. Maybe she’s wearing a high-necked blouse and a jacket. I imagine it’s more likely to be a ratty t-shirt, one even the thrift store wouldn’t take, one with writing that holes and fading have long obscured, but might once have been something obscene, or maybe a prayer. You can’t tell. You’ve seen girls with shirts like that. But you’ve always looked away quickly, haven’t you? I have. And later, a part of me always wished I hadn’t.
Ernest Hemingway declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” He’s got a point, because starting with frank Huck and his innocent, original declarations on that raft, American literature has been about voice: about expressing something universal, but in an absolutely unique and personal way. At it’s best, American literature, from Twain to Faulkner to Bradbury to Pynchon, is about grabbing words by the root and pulling them, raw, out of a character’s soul and straight through the gut, to reveal something that absolutely couldn’t have been revealed in any other way, or by any other character.
Grace Krilanovich follows in that tradition. Her voice reminds me of a sort of stylistic love-child of William Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, and some of the edgier grunge bands of the 90s (it’s best not to try to imagine the physical specifics of that metaphorical union). All the same, I can’t help feeling that listing her even among that august company does her something of a disservice, because while she is clearly a part of a continuum, comparison, pretty much by definition, makes her sound in some way derivative, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Grace Krilanovich has brought forth something new, fresh, and, yes, original.
Take three examples (that I picked largely because I could find them on the Internet without retyping them, but they are more than typical enough to make my point):
“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.”
“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.”
And this one:
“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.”
You get the idea. But don’t dare think The Orange Eats Creeps is just about attitude. I did, and so help me, I nearly missed that behind all that aggression was a rather heartbreaking mix of story and character. The voice captivated me, but it has a way of getting the hackles up. While my guard was raised, watching out for the relentless beating power of those words, the story snuck in past my shields and devastated me, leaving my heart a deserted city. I felt numbed and overwhelmed, moved and shaken. Mostly, I felt, well, exhilaration. I didn’t expect that. Not just any book can do that, move you that way, you know. You have to watch out for the ones that can. And you have to share them. Even when you don’t know quite what to say.
An update: A couple of people on Twitter noted that I never said anything about the story, aside from it’s impact. That’s because any kind of synopsis really does the book a disservice. But I aim to please, so here goes.
A band of self-described hobo vampire junkies roam a nightmarish, broken landscape—the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s. It’s not the Pacific Northwest I’ve seen as a tourist, though. Thank Heaven. And when i say vampires, don’t think Twilight, or anything else you know. They are creatures of appetite. The narrator, a girl with (apparently) drug-induced psychic abilities and a strange connection to a young member of the Donner Party (who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her vanished foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People.” Meanwhile, she’s stalked by a monster out of a David Lynch film. She has no memory to speak of, only vague feelings, and she rambles like someone reporting the events of a fever dream.
We never really get a feel for how much of the events presented are “real,” and it doesn’t really matter. The events are shocking, sure, and fascinating. But the haunting power of the story comes from the stream of consciousness that carries us through them, and the burning question that haunted me on every page … is this really what it’s like in the brain of some drug-burned street kid in the urban underbelly of the Pacific Northwest? The story is fascinating, sure. But it what’s might be real that lingers after the last page is turned.
The Orange Eats Creeps is a new kind of literature for a century that’s just getting its feet wet. It’s an undefinable novel for a yet-to-be-defined era. It’s a product of its time, sure, but its one that I think has the power to endure. Ultimately, it is about matters of heart, family, and home, or lack thereof, themes that will always be universal. I’m still not quite sure how to respond to it. But I do know that it’s impossible to be indifferent. I wish I’d discovered it for my own fledgling publishing enterprise. I hope you’ll give it a try, and I hope you’ll let me know what you think.