||[Sep. 14th, 2008|10:44 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
(Full disclosure: Victor LaValle is a friend of mine and a sometime member of the Who Wants Cake writing group. However, the novel reviewed here was written well before he joined the group, and well before I met him. As always, I try to maintain objectivity when reviewing books written by people I know, and sometimes even judge them more harshly than books by strangers.)
Before picking up Victor LaValle's The Ecstatic, or Homunculus, I hadn't read a good novel of just straight-up literary fiction in ages. I have to admit -- no disrespect to my genre-writing friends -- but it was quite a breath of fresh air. As an author, LaValle writes like a dream. He crafts his sentences like finely carved bone, applies just the right details, and makes his dialogue sing with humor, desperation, confusion, and frustration. LaValle understands style and voice in a way that I forget exists sometimes with all the plot-driven genre books I read. His characters aren't just finely drawn -- they're real. Highly stylized in some ways, but so real to me, as the reader, that I was a little sad to say goodbye to them when I finished the novel.
Our narrator is Anthony James, a 350-pound unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic. He's also the most normal person in his family. His mother has frequent bouts of amnesia, mixed with uncontrollable promiscuity. His thirteen-year-old sister, Nabisase, travels the teen beauty pageant circuit. His grandmother hails from "the old country" -- Uganda -- and has a limited grasp of English but knows how to twist the insult knife. Anthony's family drives to Ithaca to pick him up from Cornell, where he has taken to wandering around naked and wearing his hair in a wild cauliflower afro, and bring him back to their depressed neighborhood in Queens.
This is a very rich character piece, and like a lot of character pieces it has no single through-line of plot. Instead it follows several intersecting character arcs. Anthony struggles through getting his family and neighbors not to be scared of him, hooks up with a revolutionary college student with control issues named Lorraine, goes with Nabisase to West Virginia to enter her in the Miss Innocence beauty pageant for girls who say no -- which he semi-accidentally sabotages by letting in a group of radicals led by Uncle Arms, who wants to turn it into a pageant rewarding hardship instead of beauty -- falls in with the neighborhood devil, Ishkabibble, a loan shark everyone owes money to and who agrees to fund Anthony's idea of making a horror movie, which instead becomes a self-publishing scam for an encyclopedia of horror movies that may or may not exist. (Speaking of, I half expected Ishkabibble not to exist too, for LaValle to go the Fight Club route, but he doesn't let anything be that easy.) Along the way we also meet Ledric Mayo, who eats spoiled fish in the hopes of contracting tapeworm in order to lose weight, a team of illegal immigrant cleaners getting high off asbestos fumes, a cow with a fist-sized hole in its side, and a pack of neighborhood dogs that go wild and take over Anthony's street. Did I mention it's kind of a comedy? It's also really sad. Often at the same time.
Anthony, being sick, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. There are a small handful of scenes whose veracity are suspect, such as witnessing a liaison between Nabisase and Ledric Mayo at a movie theater -- when Anthony yells his sister's name, Ledric vanishes into thin air. The aforementioned horror movies aren't recognized by a single person who looks at the book -- including one called "Homunculus," also the subtitle of LaValle's novel, about invulnerable monster children who take over for their mortal, fallible, destructible parents. Like Anthony to his insane mother and absent father.
There are so many passages I'd love to quote for you here, but I'll resist the urge. Instead, I highly recommend you to read the novel itself. It's an amazing, powerful, often hilarious experience. (Plus, LaValle is a spec-fic nerd and peppers the story with references to Lovecraft and Wellman.) If The Ecstatic is any indication, I can't wait to pick up LaValle's first book, the collection Slapboxing with Jesus. You can also find something of his in Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers' new superheroes of color anthology The Darker Mask.
Anthony James reminds me a lot of Ignatius J. Reilly, and indeed The Ecstatic as a whole reminds me of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I can think of no higher praise.