By Lisabet Sarai
By the time you read this post, I’ll be in China.
As I write this, it’s already 9PM, I’m leaving at noon tomorrow, and I haven’t even started packing.
Hence, this is going to be a somewhat perfunctory post. I hope you’ll forgive me.
Our topic this month is “What are you reading?” I’d love to spend pages on this, as I’ve been engaged in some juicy books, but I’ll just give you the short version.
I just finished Funhouse, the seventh book in Aurelia T. Evans’ incredible Arcanium series. Arcanium is a demonic circus controlled by ancient djinn Bell Madoc, a perversely charming chameleon who gets his kicks fulfilling people’s casually expressed wishes in ways that bind them to the circus. In general, I’m not a fan of series; I find that after a few books, they become overly formulaic and lose their zest. I’m still enchanted by Arcanium, though, largely due to its moral ambiguity.
Horrible things happen in Arcanium. People are disfigured, tortured, even devoured. The demons who populate the Oddity Row and perform under the big top don’t subscribe to any sort of human moral code. They’re happy to feed their lusts on human flesh and even human life. The humans who have attacked Arcanium and are in the process of being punished can be even more reprehensible.
At the same time, Arcanium offers a sort of sanctuary for individuals who really don’t fit in the outside world, as well as a path to self-knowledge. Neve, the protagonist in Funhouse, is a fine example. A brilliant PhD biologist who happens to also be a voluptuous redhead, Neve has never felt sexual desire. She marries Joseph because they enjoy one another’s company and have similar tastes – both are fans of Rocky Horror and H.P. Lovecraft – but though she tries to satisfy her husband, she feels no physical pleasure herself. This tears their marriage apart and brings Neve into Arcanium, when she wishes, in Bell’s presence, that she could “experience sex the way her husband wants her to do”. She becomes a sexually insatiable creature, suffering constant torment from the simple sensation of clothing on her super-sensitive skin. Arcanium is drenched in sexual tension, and Neve could easily find partners among the demons or the humans, but having been objectified all her life due to her opulent body, she resists.
I liked Neve a lot, but the actual plot in Funhouse wandered a bit. In particular, I found the end a bit unsatisfying, since there’s no real resolution to Neve’s dilemma, other than her increasing acceptance of her abnormal state.
Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll purchase Haunted, the next installment, since I gather it continues Neve’s story.
In a very different vein, I’m within thirty or forty pages of finishing Riven Rock, by T.C. Boyle. Boyle is an incredibly creative and diverse author. Each of his books is a thoroughly new experience. This one, one of his earlier novels, riffs on the historical characters of billionaire Stanley McCormick and his wife Katherine Dexter, suffragette and woman’s rights advocate. Always a sensitive child, dominated by his mother, Stanley falls prey to the hereditary schizophrenia that destroyed his older sister. In Stanley’s case, the dementia has strong associations with sexual desire and sexual guilt. Katherine is forced to sequester him at their Santa Barbara mansion Riven Rock, where he is not allowed to interact with women at all. There he languishes for decades, defying all attempts to "cure" him.
The book vividly portrays the erratic and constantly changing nature of psychosis. It’s also a wonderful portrait of America during the first half of the twentieth century. Katherine and Stanley are both sympathetic characters; I would like to hope for a happy ending, though it seems unlikely.
The true brilliance of the novel, though, lies in the contrast between Stanley and his long-time male nurse, Eddie O’Kane. Eddie is, at various times, a womanizer and a drunkard, but unlike Stanley, he has the agency to change his behavior and his life. In a way, Eddie provides a mirror for Stanley, suggesting that the core symptom of insanity is the inability to recognize it in one’s self.
I’m leaving Riven Rock behind on my bedside table, to finish when I return. Instead, I’m taking two used volumes that have been on my shelves for a while: The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks and The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka. I’ve read work by both these authors and enjoyed it. Banks’ The Bridge, in particular, is amazing, mysterious, evocative and intense. Apparently The Wasp Factory was his first novel.
Meanwhile, Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine was laugh out loud funny. I’m hoping this book is as good.
And now I really have to go pack!