Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
September 2017

Title: The Grip of it
Author: Jac Jemc
Publisher: FSG Originals

Remember this classic joke by Steven Wright? “Last night somebody broke into my apartment and replaced everything with exact duplicates. When I pointed it out to my roommate, he said, ‘Do I know you?’” If Steven Wright were engulfed by a hellish conflagration that caused him to require a complete skin transplant, and the skin donor was Roman Polanski around the time of Repulsion or maybe The Tenant, and during the horrific surgery the drugs weren’t enough to numb Wright from the terrible pain and his brain lapsed into a sustained fever dream in order to escape the horror, that dream might be something like Jac Jemc’s deeply disturbing novel The Grip of It. In fact, at one point, Julie, one of the novel’s dual first-person narrators along with her husband James, muses: “Everything I see in our house looks as if it had been replaced with a replica.” The punch-line, about whether James too is who he appears to be or whether he has also been replaced, is unstated, and more effective for it.

As that line suggests, the novel is shot through with moments of absurdity that might function as comedy in a different, less unsettling context. The plot is difficult to summarize, and perhaps its slipperiness is as important as its contents, which include a youngish couple moving to a new town—“We could buy a house, get a fresh start”—as much to avoid old temptations, like Jake’s compulsive gambling, as to enjoy a slower pace of life and improve their relationship. The house, right from the get-go, is a nightmarish construct of unsettling sounds and impossible geometry:

[T]he agent barrels forward, hustling us to the unfinished basement and pretending not to hear the sound in an obvious way and he disappears around a corner and we follow him, only to find him gone.

James and I look at each other, concerned, until a section of the wall spins around, and there stands the agent, face plain, matter-of-fact, saying, “Secret compartments. There are several of them in this room alone.”

At first these issues seem amenable to rational resolution: “We talk through what to do about the basement. Should we replace the stained plaster? Paint over it? Finish the basement with carpet and beer signs and a sectional couch?”

But the home’s grotesqueries multiply faster than James or Julie can deconstruct, and the added pressures of new jobs and a highly unpleasant neighbor by the name of Rolf Kinsler—he always seems to be staring in at them from his window—create a stultifying atmosphere. Revelations about the home’s past heave paranoia and dread atop the couple’s everyday worries. Their relationship and physical wellbeing (“I finger the rotten yellow spot edging my waistline”’; “I can feel my heartbeat in my eyes. My vision pulses slightly”) quickly degrade. One of the novel’s strengths is its manifold tactile descriptions of decomposition (“I trace my hand along the wall. I touch something wet and soft. It reminds me of rotten-apple flesh”), visceral representations of encroaching disintegration, both literal and metaphysical. The novel’s Prologue teases us with the following possibility: “Maybe we should share something genuine for once. Stories from the deep, honest pits of us. But what if those buried, fetid stories are the ones that have bubbled to the surface? What if they’re right there, balanced on the edge of our teeth, ready to trip into the world without even our permission?” The Grip of It simultaneously makes us root for and dread the eventuality of these “fetid stories” in Julie and James’s chronicles.

The narrative consists of mostly alternating James/Julie first-person chapters, creating a psychological hall of mirrors in which we easily follow the couple’s mounting alienation and their questioning of self. Jemc does a superb job of capturing the distinctive pattern of each character’s thoughts and the subtle differences in which they respond to the gruesome and uncanny. She also has the gift of being able to write both tersely and in a naturalistic stream-of-consciousness, effortlessly shifting between strobe-like bursts of observational description and long melodic prose lines of interior reflection.

In Danse Macabre, his book-length study of the horror genre, Stephen King writes: “It doesn’t hurt to emphasize again that horror fiction is a cold touch in the midst of the familiar, and good horror fiction applies this cold touch with sudden, unexpected pressure. When we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we’re locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in . . . with them.” The Grip of It takes this one step farther and makes an eloquent case for the terror of locking ourselves in . . . with ourselves.

I mentioned Polanski before. Horror fans may here find many other influences or inspirations, such as The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining and 1408, various haunted-house works by Charles L. Grant, the film Dark Water, and more modern fare like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves or darker stories by Joyce Carol Oates. But in the end this novel remains a monster—endlessly textured and fractured and contradictory, with an unexpectedly understated, almost comical conclusion—all its own. Towards the novel’s end Julie verbalizes a series of rapid-fire epiphanies, including the insight that “contagious intensity deserves a name of its own.” That name may well be Jac Jemc.

Title: The Rift
Author: Nina Allan
Publisher: Titan Books

The question of what constitutes truth lies at the center of Nina Allan’s marvelous head-scratcher The Rift. One obvious instance of this is the mystery that informs the plot. On July 16 1994, Julie Rouane vanishes, leaving her younger sister Selena in a state of shock and confusion, while catapulting the siblings’ parents into grief—and in their father’s case, ultimately mental instability. For years Selena struggles to make sense of Julie’s disappearance, only to be shaken anew when Julie reappears, with a fantastic account of the interim. What really happened to Julie? Can Selena trust her stupendous tale? Can she even be sure it’s really her? The novel’s three main sections deal with “The Before” of Julie’s disappearance, her own narration of her experiences, and finally the disruptions to everyone’s lives, most notably Selena’s, upon Julie’s return.

Yet beyond this persistent, nagging conundrum are many moments of quieter ontological investigation, such as the following:

“I’m not talking about provable facts—it’s more complicated than that. What interests me most, and what helps to bring me closer to discovering answers, is whether the person telling the story believes what they are saying.”

“Even when the main facts were the same, different people noticed different things, according to what was important to them and what wasn’t.”

“Once the truth of what had happened to me began to seep through, a rift seemed to open in my mind, a rift between the universe I appeared to be living in and the one I understood.”

“Selena felt light-headed, not so much with tiredness as with unreality. Could unreality be transmitted from person to person like a virus, like a cold germ?”

Over and over throughout the novel Selena, then Julie, and in turn almost everyone who has played a role in their family chronicle, comes to question long-held beliefs or attitudes. Two elements help ground the constantly self-interrogating nature of the narrative and thus prevent it from unraveling itself: excellent characterization, and a plethora of references to fiction from our world.

Allan does a superb job of illuminating her character’s personalities by immersing us in their first-person voices and building their physical and psychological biographies like coral, layer after layer of fine revelations and nuanced reinterpretations of what has come before. Part of The Rift’s power, and one of its headiest challenges to us readers, is this very intimacy as it applies to Julie’s retelling of what befell her during her absence. Her story of traveling through a “pore in the void” to “the shore of the Shuubseet, or Shoe Lake, an elongated, slipper-shaped stretch of water not far from the western outskirts of Fiby, which is the smallest and most southerly of the six great city-states of the planet of Tristane, one of the eight planets of the Suur System, in the Aww Galaxy” would be easy to dismiss if we didn’t lose ourselves in her voice and thoughts for a third of the novel. But in presenting her as a smart, observant, sensitive, and self-aware person, Allan forces us to try to square her character with the nature of what she’s describing, which has the kind of anthropological worldbuilding intensity found in the best works of Ursula K. Le Guin. The tension that arises from the plausibility of her person and the implausibility of her claims is not entirely dissimilar to that of the psychiatric patient prot in the film K-PAX. And, as in that story, Julie presents just enough potential evidence to make even the most reserved skeptics wonder.

The novel’s frequent allusions to TV shows and movies—EastEnders, The X-Files, Only God Forgives, Ring of Bright Water, The Shoe, True Grit, and many others—adeptly reinforce the illusion that the world inhabited by Selena and Julie is real. Perhaps one of the more telling invocations is that of Picnic at Hanging Rock, itself fueled by an unsolved—and ultimately unsolvable—mystery. Further abetting Allan’s strategy of disconcerting our expectations is the inclusion of many found documents—essays, lists, reports, film script fragments—whose presence and purpose in the narrative we must puzzle out on our own. Some are obvious but some, particularly toward the novel’s end, become trickier to parse.

Allan is a gifted stylist, and her descriptions and similes are often arresting (“Selena laughed, a bright, shallow, tinny sound, like balls of scrunched-up aluminum foil being rattled around in the bottom of a plastic cup”), at times sumptuous. Her heartfelt evocations of a bygone era and her excellent fusion of realism with something else bring to mind Graham Joyce’s supple work, such as The Facts of Life; the idea of a character struggling with two sets of overlapping and seemingly disparate sets of memories also made me think of Jo Walton’s My Real Children.

Gary K. Wolfe, in his reviews of this novel for Locus and the Chicago Tribune, opines that Nina Allan is a formally subversive writer, here deliberately setting out to play with genre protocols. This is my first novel by Allan, and I appreciate Wolfe’s contextual insight. Wolfe goes on to say that “the title could refer either to Julie and Serena’s alienation or to that magical portal between worlds.” I’d like to suggest at least one more reading of the titular rift—the impassable distance between language and reality.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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