I had a feeling this was going to be a weird book just based on the name. It was Indiespensible #57 from back in February of 2016, which means that I’m managing to stay less than two years behind on my Indiespensible pile. Some day I’m going to take a month off work and refuse to leave my house and try to avoid sleeping and get some serious reading done. But until then I’ll just keep plugging away on my piles of books.
Oh, so my feeling about the book being weird was right on. But it was sneakily weird. It started weird, then got less weird, then the end was super weird. For some reason ghost stories dressed up as literary fiction rub me the wrong way. Either be fantasy or be regular fiction, don’t try to be both, I think is my feeling. But that’s wrong too. Books like this one rub me the wrong way. I’ve read, and loved, plenty of literary fantasy books before, like all of Deborah Harkness’ books, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, without a doubt, the best example of the modern literary ficton/fantasy genre, or if not the best, at least the first one I can think of outside of like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and that ilk. I think it’s just books that give me the impression that they are being weird just for the sake of being weird that bug me.
This novel has two time lines: one present day told in first person by Cora, a girl who finds herself pregnant and single in her mid-twenties. She seems an average sort of person, who loves social media and has an okay job. The other story is told at some point in the past, probably fifteen or so years prior to the present day timeline, and tells the story of Cora’s aunt Ruth and her friend Nat. Cora’s mom and aunt were raised in a foster home run by the Father and the Mother, who are not great people but not bad enough to warrant more of a brief mention here. Cora’s mom ages out at eighteen and leaves her much younger sister alone at the foster home. Explanations for why El never picks up her sister are never given. Ruth latches onto Nat, also her age, once El leaves, and says he is her new sister. Their relationship is close but always platonic, and a little weird. Nat says he can talk to the dead, so he and Ruth set up a little business with the kids at the school. Eventually they hook up with Mr. Bell, who is a con artist in town, and they make a lot of money with their little show.
Meanwhile, back in the present day, Cora is still pregnant and alone, and then her aunt Ruth shows up, and for some reason she doesn’t speak anymore. Cora met Ruth and Nat once, when she was fourteen. They came to visit El and left after one night. Ruth and Cora take off in Cora’s car, but when it breaks down, they just start walking. Somewhere. Cora never quite knows where, but they walk for a long time, always heading somewhere, for the entirety of her pregnancy.
There’s a guy who snorts Comet and wants to marry Ruth, but his nose falls off and she loses interest. There’s a religion called Ether, which is a hybridization of many other religions as well as a few songs from the seventies. There are ghosts, real and imagined. And looking back on it, some of the weirdness is charming and beautifully written. Take this for example, wherein the author describes Cora going cold turkey off technology after the car breaks and she and Ruth start walking. “The first two days without a phone, my insides are jumpy and nauseated, a true withdrawal. My veins ache for information from the Internet, distractions from thought. I’m lonely. My neck, lungs, blood hurt like I’m getting a cold. The world happens without me because I’m exiled with no Wi-Fi. I wonder if my shoes have arrived yet. Maybe Lord [that’s the boyfriend] is trying to reach me with news of his divorce. I have a parasite of grotesque urges. I want to push little buttons quickly. I want information immediately. I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling into the sun. I want people to like me, like me, like me. I want to buy things without trying them on. I want to look at photos of drunk kids I knew back in high school. And I want it all in my hand. But my cyborg parts have been ripped out. What’s the temperature? I don’t know. What’s the capitol of Hawaii? I don’t know anything. I don’t even know the automated systems in my body anymore. I don’t know how to be hungry, how to sleep, to breathe (70).”
There are many, many beautiful and good things about this book, but there are also weird and not so good things about it. I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though I will admit that other than the “weird for the sake of being weird” vibe I got off and on while I was reading it, generally it was quite well-written, but folks who like pure literary fiction or pure fantasy may not be able to get into it. And here’s one complaint: if the name of the book is going to be Mr. Splitfoot, perhaps Mr. Splitfoot should play a more prominent role.