Well, Not Everything: On Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Published by Harper Perennial, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, which is Justin Taylor’s first collection of stories, manages to come off rather short (and don’t let me start with the utterly misleading title). I went into this collection with the hopes of being “wowed” with the narratives he has written. With a blurb from Padgett Powell that describes his stories as something that pays debt to Donald Barthelme, and pieces that possess a “strange undertow of Phillip Roth,” one cannot help but have much enthusiasm when one begins to read the works. I was fooled. Severely fooled.

Admittedly, I did enjoy the narratives, at least at some point. I was a bit amused by its hipster appeal and its characterization of the cultural movement that, for the first time in history, is suddenly thrown into a negative light. Here we have narratives that namedrop critics and philosophers like Derida, Lacan, and Nietzsche (a pastime of hipsters), stories which give cultural references to pop music icons, like The Pixies, and fictional realities where junkies, pseudo-artists, juveniles who believe that they are creating  “high-art,” anarchists who do not create any action that can be called anarchic, men and women who have open-relationships ( those who are in a “yes, we’re in a relationship, but we screw other people in various other acrobatic positions” kind of shitty setup), coke addicts, Goth girls who obsess over witchcraft, and working stiffs who try to break out of their formal and dull lives at night by getting fucked up, literally and metaphorically, exist. It’s amusing to see them. The effort made to satirize them is entertaining. It’s enjoyable to read about them, to laugh at them, to pity them, or to feel compassion for the ordeals they are going through.

The language and narration used is also something which I rather relished in. I like its contemporary feel, its sheer informal and conversational tone. It’s almost as if a friend is telling me this story, and it gives much comfort for the reader. But that’s just that. I didn’t like anything else, nor did I find anything intellectually and literarily engaging.  There’s just something, a great “something”, that lacked.

The premises are interesting, granted that. But the attack made on them is childish, and frankly, rather shallow. The characters are flat: drunken kids who stare at the bleakness of the world, lacking the intention and willpower to do something about their destitute and devestating lives, which, from a certain point of view, is not that bad. If the intention of any fiction is to highlight and explore a specific aspect of the human condition/experience, this stories barely does it.  They are initiation/coming of age stories that don’t have any initiation or grand coming of age epiphany at all. And they’re too short, just too damn short, when there is enough space to go around and explore more these characters. The stories just lack, just lack a lot of the things one looks for in a good short story or in an adequate collection.

There is a great writer somewhere inside Justin Taylor and I just hope to God this writer comes out in The Gospel of Anarcy, his first novel, which just came out earlier this year.

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“The Hopeless Emptiness of Everything”: On Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road

On a wistful and drizzling Saturday morning, two hours before I had to trudge on to my fiction class at the academe, I took my Everyman’s edition of Richard Yate’s Three Novels (Revolutionary Road, The Eastern Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness) with me, eager to bask in the “deep self-deception” and “contemporary alienation” which Michiko Kakutani spoke of when she described Yate’s writings. It was a surprise. Instead of simple feeling that which Kakutani said, instead of being entertained, instead of being amused, instead of being engaged critically, all I felt was sheer emptiness, absolute sadness and melancholy, and desperation, most of all.

The novel is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple, living in a quaint village outside of New York City. Stuck in a life of repetitions and sterility, aware that they are so much better than the rest of the drones that fill the heartless landscape of America in the 60’s, they decide, after a harrowing argument, to escape to Paris, where Frank, who’s been working for the past seven years or so to support his family, will finally have the adequate time he needs to search for the man he’s supposed to be. In order to do this, April decides to take a job as a clerk once they get to Paris. Risky and uncertain, they set out to do their plan even when their friends begin arguing about the unrealistic and absurd nature of their decision. Only John Givings, the son of Howard and Helen and a mental basket case, sees the profundity in their escape, and both of the Wheelers are completely fine with that. In years, their life takes a positive turn, and finally, they can see their chance at happiness and fulfilment manifesting in front of them.  Quite suddenly, April finds herself pregnant, which throws a wrench in their grand plan. April decides to terminate her pregnancy. Frank finds out. Another visit from John Givings makes it all worst as the lunatic taunts them for their cowardice and inability to pursue their original proposal. A fight ensues. Frank begs them to stay, for practical reasons. April argues that if the fetus is taken care off, they can still push through with their trip. In the end, April takes matter in her hands, producing dire and tragic results.

I don’t really believe that whole bullshit concept of a novel that can’t be “put down.” I’ve always had the ability to close a book, whether it is my favourite Magic Realist, my adored American narcissistic novelist for that year (I’m talking to you Phillip Roth), or my preferred short story writer of that month. Revolutionary Road was different. In the tricycle, sandwiched between an old lady and this guy who resembles the stay puft marshmallow man in the colorum, before class, after class, while waiting for Ida, in mid-commute, while eating, it was one of the first novels that I could not close. It was that magnificent. It was that enchanting. Was it the slow, beautiful but very simple prose, filled with declarative sentences, devoid of sentimentality, neutral in the presentation of each character’s desire and plight that did it for me? Was it the setting that captured the mundane world of the 60’s, the hat, coat and tie, cigarette-filled, Mad Men like reality, which Yates captured so perfectly that compelled me to read? Or was it the utter stupidity, the compassionate journey, the desperation, the inescapable predicament, the self-flagellating nature of the Wheelers, or the idealism in Shep and Milly, or the gullibility of Mr. Howard and Mrs. Helen Giving’s, which completely reeled me in?

Upon finishing the novel, I immediately felt like John Givings, the mentally disturbed son of Howard and Helen. First thing I said was “wow,” and I began to echo what he actually uttered halfway through the novel:

“Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that’s all we ever talked about. We’d sit around talking about emptiness all night.  Nobody ever said ‘hopeless’ though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”

Richard Yate’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, is indeed about that hopelessness. The novel concerns itself with the exploration of the prison we find ourselves in, the jail which society and culture demands of us to be confined in. The Sisyphus-like demeanor men and women succumb to be in once they become adults, once marriage happens, once they bear children, and the dozens of escape one can pursue and the hundred more circumstances that could happen to make individuals fall back into that stupor.  It is a pale view of humanity, given that we pride ourselves on our ability to choose the paths that we forge, given that we think so highly of our freedom and intelligence. In the end we see that hopelessness, that futility, that petrifying notion, all around us, lurking in our every action, in our thoughts, stuck on the vandalized and sticky seats of the bus, the cold pole of the train, the computer monitors that we stare at as we type away the hours of the day, the business and corporate jargons that we drop during meetings, and embedded in the smile on our faces every time the fifteenth and the thirtieth of the month comes and we collect our salaries. It is a truth of the contemporary times, and it is a devastating fact that we have to live with, constantly.

Mary Katherine, You Are Rosemary’s Baby: On Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I have always loved Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  As it is one of the most widely anthologized short stories, it was one of the first narratives I’ve ever read, and one of the first that really made a profound effect on how I see reality. The horror evoked by that piece hits me every time. Although I read that piece at least every six months, I can still feel the mounting tension as the lottery draws near, the terror, isolation and alienation at the realization that one’s life will end because of a foolish unfair tradition, and the relief, and guilt, acquired in knowing that one’s existence has been given an extension.  The courageous exploration of these human experiences was the reasons why I fell in love with Shirley Jackson, even with just one short work, and when I received my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the last novel the author completed before her untimely death, I eagerly hoped that I would read something of that nature. Luckily, I read something more, something far darker, and something far more appalling than what The Lottery is; a narrative whose terror and coldness reaches down to the dark corners of our soul.

The novel focuses on the remaining members of the once great Blackwood family who live in a gargantuan estate on the top of small American town: the narrator, Mary Katherine, her sister Constance, and their ailing Uncle Julian. Hated and feared by the town, they have mostly kept to themselves in their fortress, only venturing into the town to get the necessary supplies they need in order to survive. In their solitude, they attempt to drive away the memory of their horrible past, which was the unfortunate death of their entire family, during a dinner, after they used sugar mixed with poison. During the course of the novel, we are given the impression that the shy but warm Constance was the wicked criminal behind this act, despite Mary Katherine’s fascination for sorcery/witchcraft, poison and her penchant for wishing death on everybody. Constance was even charged with murder and was almost imprisoned. And the blame on Constance would have continued if it not for the untimely visit of their cousin Charles.  Slowly, the world they have constructed for themselves becomes compromised. Under the weight of Charles’ presence and sheer need to question the manner in which they live, it crumbles, which great displeases Mary Katherine. Finally, the secrets are exposed, the readers are made aware of Mary Katherine’s true form, and the men and women of the small town, the people they have kept at bay for so long, just about had enough of their existence.

The appeal of the novel lies in the narration and characterization of Mary Katherine. She is someone obsessed with preserving the power she acquires through her youth and innocence. As she is the youngest in the Blackwoods, she has been treated most of her life like a princess. Everything has to go her way. Everyone must love and adore her. Everyone must adapt to how she acts and what she feels.  When a circumstance, or someone, poses a danger to this setup that she has come to known as what reality should be, she destroys that threat in the quickest way possible.  Often, when she thinks about the townspeople, when she hears them talk about her family in hushed tones, she wishes that “they were all dead and walking on their bodies,” but she does this in such a guiltless manner so staggering and terrifying. She is, in every sense of the term, blameless, unaware that her actions are maleficent, unaware that her fascination for poisons and the death cup mushroom is disconcerting, unaware that her fascination for witchcraft and sorcery is unusual.  And she has been constructed this way that when we finally learned that she was the one who killed all the Blackwood, we do not blame her. We accept it willingly, despite what our moralities dictate. It is in her nature to protect her life, it is an act of survival, it is simply right that she preserve what she has grown accustomed to. It is her privilege to be indulged. In that particular world, “Mary Katherine should have everything she wants… must have anything she likes… Mary Katherine must never be punished. In the novel, “everyone must bow (their) heads to (the) adored Mary Katherine.” A terrible idea, granted that, but one that is just, appropriate, and correct, making the novel much more horrifying than what it already is.

The Unmemorable Histories in Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

 

“The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade, stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections” (240).

 

Inventive and utterly clever, Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters functions of the premise that every single important ideology that currently exists in the world stems from what transpired in Noah’s ark during the great flood.  Divided into ten chapters/ stories (until now, I still am unable to decide whether Barne’s work qualifies as a novel, a short story collection or a story-arc), it begins with a new, revised account of Noah’s voyage into the oceanic world that came after God wreaked his wrath into the world he found unworthy. Told from the point-of-view of a stowaway woodworm, an animal previously deemed unworthy, it exposes the malice of Noah’s family and the dozens of tragedies which struck the five ships (yes, according to the wormy narrator, there were five arcs, one commanded by Noah, three managed by his sons, and one that served as a medical and storage unit), which includes the death of the unicorns and the behemoths, largely because of the human’s need for sustenance. The next nine pieces largely deal with the aftermath, without continuing Noah’s story. This includes “The Wars of Religion,” a documented court proceedings regarding the indictment and eventual excommunication of several woodworms who was said to have caused a piece of wood to weaken and fall on a priest, “Shipwreck,” a ekphrastic piece which uses Gericault’s famous painting of the Medusa in an attempt to recreate what had happened on the infamous ship and pursue a discussion on the importance of tragedy and art in culture, “ “Three Simple Stories,” three vignettes which question God’s behavior after the great flood, including a think piece that dwells on the prophet Jonah’s mission and the contradictory nature of his divine quest (as well as the sheer impossibility of surviving inside the belly of a whale), “Project Ararat,” which tells of one woman’s quest to reach Noah’s vineyard and the mountain where Noah docked his arc, the infamous, didactic and ironic half-chapter, “parentheses”, which consists of Barne’s discursive attempt to share his views  on the semantics of love and desire, and “The Dream,” which offers the readers a new and different picture of paradise.  Each tale has a different voice, a different manner in which it is told, and each distances itself from being formal, from being objective, from being devoid of irony. And although each of them attempts to be self-sustaining, to be a work that can stand on its own, there are connective devices, recurring themes, thoughts and fragments that exist, reflecting the odd nature of human history.

Interestingly enough, the ten stories found in Barne’s book strays away from the events that become central to the world, and instead deals with more or less common events which one would not imagine to have much significance on how the world turns, positing that history, the essential aspects of it, is not influenced by the gravity of the change it produces, but by how an individual sees it. Common events that do not simply matter to the grand scheme of things bear in them the repercussions of the smallest action, reaffirming the universality of human emotions and experience, urging us to question our notions on the so-called “objective history” that we have been come to know. At the end of the novel, the readers eventually realize that each experience becomes a historical archive that can be traced back to one source, echoing with it a dozen theoretical ramifications that the critic in me nods in agreement.

 

*Much thanks for Random House for graciously providing me a copy of this wonderful book. And yes, Im back to my usual blogging.

Vonnegut’s Lost Son: On George Saunder’s Civilwarland in Bad Decline

1. It seems that the great anxiety born out of Kurt Vonnegut’s death is finally gone, thanks to the prose narratives of Geroge Saunders. As a Vonnegut fan, I constantly wondered who will have the balls to continue what he began inn his fiction. I’ve often wondered on who will take the tremendous and somewhat dangerous responsibility on exposing the absurdities and inanities of western culture, and of the world, by poking fun at existence, at the human experience, and at the numerous idiocies men do during the time they spent here on Earth (or in Tralfamadore). Certainly, any writer from the anti-“empires,” from the other side of the world, can pursue such an anarchic project. But we always need someone from the inside who’ll have the bravado to take on the same project. That man is George Saunders. In his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, which was previously acknowledged by the New York Times as one of the notable books that came out of 1997, George Saunders combines black humor and the other techniques of satire and yolks it with the tenets of the post-apocalyptic worlds found in Dystopian and Speculative Fiction.

2. In the title story, the first in the collection, we are given a view of a not-so-distant future overrun by murderous gangs and the theme park which they continuously raid, Civil War Land. As the name of the amusement park suggests, Civil War Land is a reserve dedicated to the preservation of one of America’s finest and most savage moments in history, the American Civil War. It is an extraordinary place where an individual can adopt an identity and be one of the characters of that period, be it may a politician, a confederate soldier, a sickly degenerate, a whore struck with a venereal disease, or even a priest, giving its visitors and patrons a unique and unforgettable perspective on a humorous time when everybody was obsessed with color and pride. Told from the point-of-view of one of the park’s administrative employees, it details the last remaining weeks of Civil War Land’s operations and the attempts of the protagonist and his boss, Mr. Alsuga, to take care of the “gang problem.”  In their desperation to revive their cash flow and stop the murders from happening, they hire an ex-criminal, a murderer, only to realize that their actions just might have fast-tracked the end of the park. What comes out is a ridiculous portrait of an individual who obsessively and quite irrationally attempts to preserve history, figuratively and literally, even at the expense of his own family, his own career and the bystanders around him; a work which exhibits the author’s penchant to explore the unspoken undercurrents of human life and exposes Saunder’s gung-ho drive to narrate the stories of individuals who find themselves at the far-end of loneliness, near the precipice of madness and nothingness.

3.  Absurdity is also of interest to Mr. Saunders. In his fourth story, The 400-Pound CEO, Saunders tackles the horror that has invaded American society in the last few decades: the problem of obesity. Jeffrey, an employee at a firm that specializes in exterminating squirrels, is perennially the butt of all jokes due to his weight and his irrepressible need to stuff himself with food. Told from his own point-of-view, it recounts his attempts to begin a relationship with Freeda, a coworker, the embarrassment he feels when the date he had with her was nothing more but a dare initiated by his office, and his anger towards Tim, his boss, who Freeda is sleeping with. Fueled by his anger, Jeffrey accidentally kills Tim and replaces him as the CEO of the extermination company, which follows  his downfall, incarceration and his wish to be born anew, an ambiguous conclusion which is part-prayer and part-suicide note. Other than the story made me quite concerned about the manner in which I eat, and besides the way the story resembles the Aristotelian framework of the Greek Tragedy, what I like about the story is that it renders the ridiculousness of present society, a silliness born out of men’s perception of what is beautiful, of what is normal and what it means to be a winner.

4. The humor tones down a bit in both Isabelle and The Wavemaker Falters, a comfort to the guffawing laughter that comes from reading Saunder’s stories. I can’t say much about the stories and I prefer not to. They’re melancholic and sad, showing that Saunder is not only skilled in the writing of satire, in making a simple witty joke that digs deep into the psyche of the contemporary man. He can evoke sadness. He knows how to show the sadness of the human spirit and the compassion inherent in all of us.

5. The real gem of this collection is the novella Bounty. Maximizing the nature of speculative fiction and the concept of dystopia, Bounty portrays a society in which all creatures with genetic deformities, mutants, in the non-X-Men and more Black Hole-ish sense of the term, are, by law, automatically slaves to those who are normal. The narrative follows Cole, one of the mutants endowed with talons on his feet, and the journey he goes through to look for his sister, Connie, who left Bounty Land, the amusement park where they have lived and worked since the government edict was decreed, to marry one of the normals.  The search takes Cole to the horrible world where he is faced the moral degradation of the hostile land he was born into, a world which mirrors how the world would look like if the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 turned out differently. This is the most unforgettable narrative in the collection, and it’s not because of the story, but because of the rendering of the world within the narrative. In a recent panel I participated in the 3rd Taboan International Writer’s Conference, I made mention of the challenge of the author to present the entirety of a different, altered future while focusing on the plight of a single character, the protagonist. Like Burgess, like Pynchon, like Gibson, and like Huxley (That’s a lot of namedropping), Saunders has effectively presented to us a world where each and every fragment of that particular reality has been, more or less, shared to the reader. The search for Cole’s sister is interesting enough, but the world he trudges, the world he sees, the people he meets and has to fend off and betray, are the things which ultimately is what made the narrative jaw-dropping, arresting and unforgettable.

6. On to Pastoralia after a few month. Much love to Penguin/Riverhead Books for giving me the free samples.

Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

It’s easy to forget the beauty of the long story. Hell, most people ignore its existence and presence in the tradition. It is truly enchanting, something exceptional. It does not have the restrictions and rigidness of the other popular modes. It conforms to an array of genres. Its length is adequate, satisfactory. It does not have the exhausting duration of the novel and its relentless attempts to encompass the entire life of an individual or a community, or, in the case of the novels before modernism, all of human existence (hello, meta-narrative and yes, Joyce is an exception to this claim, although I will argue that Bloom’s ordinary day in London is in fact a {re}presentation of his whole life). It does not have the briefness and fleetingness of the short story that leaves its readers satisfied but ultimately wanting more, nor does it possess the rules or norms of what the short prose narrative is supposed to be. It does not have the feeling of safety that ones gets from the novella and the novelette, its baffling form, its questionable appearance, and the lingering sense that what you are holding is simply an exhausted and stretched piece of short prose or shortened, sacrilegiously chopped novel. I have much adoration and affinity for all the forms of fiction, but the long story is different. Its protean nature, its sheer ability to adopt the techniques of the novel and the short story, and completeness is staggering, disarming. The way it says, “Screw the damn page limits and the minimum page requirements,” or “Down with breathlessness and the sprint of storytelling, the damn ‘flash of the fireflies,’ or “To hell with minimalism and the culture of restraint,” makes so much sense to me. And in this form, Alice Munro, I think, is one of the few ones who have really mastered the technique and skill to achieve everything that the long story can hope to be.

My knowledge and acquaintance with Alice Munro has been restricted to the few stories I found online and the few recent works which The New Yorker has made available in their website. I’ve never been able to read a collection. The collection which will be the focus of this review, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, along with Runaway, Lives of Girls and Women, Too Much Happiness, Open Secrets, The Progress of Love and The View from Castle Rock are perennially on my wish list, an excel file, located at my desktop, where all the books I wish to purchase are indicated. The stories that I have been fortunate to read were excellent, to say the least. Going into the collection, I was already aware of what I could look forward to from the book. But finishing the collection, after four brief days, as I tried to slip a page or two in between work, commute, school projects and extra-curricular endeavors, I was foolish to infer a prediction of what my experience would be like. Reading a collection from Munro is different, vastly and incomparably different. The emotional turmoil and sheer elation derived from reading it was not a usual occurrence. It’s something that I’ve only experienced while reading Lorrie Moore or John Updike. Certainly, I’m used to enjoying a collection. I’m comfortable with being in awe of a book. But to completely taken over, to be absolutely compelled and held by a book is a gift and a privilege. It is rare, precious, something to consider, ponder, and linger on even in the busiest moments of everyday life.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, is at first reading, utterly exhausting. The sheer weariness one gets from reading each story is not a criticism or an insult, of course. It is praise. As a fiction writer and a critic, it is impossible for me to read a story just to be amused or entertained or to find an insight into reality. In reading, I also take note of character development and their growth, the structural integrity of the whole narrative, the precision of the tone, the accuracy in the details rendered in both character and setting, and most of all, the language employed, the choice of words, the turn of the phrase, the length and elegance of a sentence, where the gorgeousness of the narrative resonates from. Each story in the collection is tireless in achieving perfection in each attribute. It is deeply invested in each aspect that understanding how it all works in harmony and in such equality is arduous, laborious, but worthwhile. Analyzing each story, one would not wonder why she is a master of the prose narrative, why her stories, towers over everybody else’s. Certainly, one other thing that radiates in this collection is the stories she weaves. The truths she decides to convey is breathtaking, transcended and relevant. Each story presents an emotional wasteland of such immensity and deepness, which the readers have to traverse. This emotional wasteland, I believe, is what every piece of literature aims to achieve.

The regular manner in which I do my review of prose narratives will not be sufficient. Such a rushed encapsulation of my favorite narratives, a summary of each, is an insult. It is heresy. This is not a book of biases and preference. The stories are equally excellent and awe-inspiring. Such reviews are cliché, of course, a downer, or proof that my critical eye is heavily clouded, enough reason for me to go back to criticism class or take another stab at a fiction writing workshop. But there are rare moments like this. There are rare moments when you want to find your inner Michiko Kakutani but simply cannot. There are moments when you try to find and channel the notoriousness of someone like Martin Amis but simply fail to. I love all the stories in this collection, the kind of love that will not fade away, love in every sense of the term, none of the semantic and cynical bull found in Roland Barthes discourse on love. Moreover, I want to keep each narrative preserve in an ethereal glass, untainted, uncorrupted, and eternally beautiful. And so I leave Johanna from the title story in that scene I remember, where she’s awkwardly trying on a dress in Milady’s, scared at the prospect of love, of sex, of a commitment, yet prepared to abandon her familiar life of servitude for happiness. And so I leave arrogant, frail and sickly Jinny while standing on the floating bridge, kissing a stranger, betraying all what she knows for a couple of seconds. And so I leave Nina, in front of her husband who had just committed suicide, desperately looking for a note, for a final goodbye. And so I leave Meriel, in bed with the doctor who tried to save the best friend of her husband, an accident that would haunt the rest of her life and future. And so I love all the other characters in the collection, the setting, the moods and tones, safe and uncompromised, in those four good days spent reading my battered, dog-eared, folded and post-it filled copy of the book.

STM’s: On Charles Burns’ Black Hole

Disease, sex and raging hormones come together to tell a haunting and terrifying symphony of images and words in Charles Burn’s critically-acclaimed graphic novel, Black Hole. Originally-serialized as a twelve-issue miniseries, the narrative focuses on the teenage population of an undisclosed suburb in Seattle as they come to grips with the existence of a terrible strain of mutation transmitted through sexual contact. The story is told from the point-of-view of four individuals. Chris, the first protagonist, is seen in the beginning as a beautiful and bright young woman who’s going through the typical motions that one goes through in high school, unaware that the problems and concerns she deals with is about to transform into something beyond her comprehension. The second protagonist, Rob, on the other hand, had already gone through the transition from being normal to someone vastly changed. The power he gained through his popularity and, ironically, his good looks, has abandoned him. He has accepted that he no longer lives within the community he grew up in and the loneliness, alienation and whatever notions of melancholia he derives from his condition is kept at bay. He is alright. Quite suddenly, his life takes a turn as he falls madly in love with Chris, a girl who was unaware of his condition, a girl he accidentally infected during a drunken coital tumble in the middle of a cemetery. The third is Keith, Mr. Lloyd Dobbler himself, another student at Rob and Chris’ school, one who’s also in love with Chris. Despite Chris’ mutation, despite the possibility of contracting the disease, Keithrevels in his sexual and erotic fascination and pursues her, even to the point of offering Chris a home and some basic necessities when she went into exile. Finally, there’s Eliza, another victim of the disease, one who simply seeks someone who’d adore her, who’d respect her, regardless of the tail that grew as the disease corrupted her body.

(Eliza)

What I particularly loved about the series is that it combined three things which I like: First, it has all the undertones and the thematic content of an angst-y eighties John Hughes movie. There’s a deluge of desperation, social awkwardness and a tinge of hope in the characters’ seemingly shallow but ultimately formative adolescent years. Second, whenever mutations and the basic experience of growing up is brought up, I am always reminded of Marvel Comics’ the X-Men­, a bunch of social misfits gifted with powers who exist to fight for the rights of mutants. Although the story is devoid of powers, cataclysmic battles, and a pedophiliac bald paraplegic in a bright yellow wheelchair, Black Hole addresses the alienation and isolation that is the major conflict found in the X-Men. It was never about villainy or the battle between good and evil (that kind of notion is for idiotic twats). This is a grace misconception created by the campy 90’s animated series and the arcade video game, X-Men: Children of the Atom, with those horrible vocal performances, the cheesy dialogue and the stiff fight scenes (Okay, fine, animation was not that advanced then). Marvel has always left the moral war to the likes of the Avengers, or The Defenders, or even to The Invaders. The X-Men were always there to resolve and explore issues of discrimination and estrangement, which Charles Burn’s work certainly does. And finally, Black Hole falls in the horror genre and is effective in eliciting a feeling of both revulsion and terror from its readers as it takes an action perennially practiced, constantly thought about, and repeatedly imagined, desired and fantasized, into something that resembles a biological weapon. Coitus in the narrative not only evokes a fleeting and blinding moment of pleasure, of writhing and trembling upheavals, of genital ejaculations and the total loss of control; it is the birth of a horrendous metamorphosis that violates the laws of our anatomies. Chris molts, like an insect, shedding her skin after a period of time. Rob possesses a mouth on his neck just directly below his chin, a mouth that can speak involuntarily. Eliza has a tail directly connected through her pelvic bone, a piece of muscle that grows back one snapped off. Keith begins to develop tendrils as elongated and cylindrical tubes of excess flesh and muscle suddenly sprout above his ribs. And several other teenagers face facial deformities, like layers of additional fat, extra appendages and even spikes in their faces. The idea of facing an existence that evokes revulsion and fear from strangers for just a single sexual experience is horrifying. It is, as the cliché goes, a fate worst than death. And what’s even more terrible is that for the hormonally-crazed and desire-driven teenagers of this narrative, the disease masks itself as something worthy of having for sex.

It is also interesting to note that the physical alterations that occur in their bodies are not some random mutation. The changes that occur compliment their condition. We can even go as far as to say that these are manifestations of their subconscious (Hello, Freud), or a conscious attempt to incorporate some irony in the narrative. A mouth is given to Rob, a person who possesses so much repressed desires and secrets inside of him. For Chris, a woman whose beauty is a curse, she has been given the ability to continually renew her appearance by the molting of her skin. The tendrils that grow out of Keith’s torso are an acknowledgement of a recurring memory, that of the tadpoles which he left to die under the sun. Eliza’s tail that grows back acknowledges her resilience towards the hassles and hardships she faces. Finally, the ugliness of the other characters, of the geeks who did nothing in school but play chess and read comic books, is an extreme manifestation of their yearning to attract attention and their wanting for their presence to be acknowledged.