Monday, May 31, 2010

"Spontaneous" Not Quite What I Expected At All

Of novels dealing with really very perverse perversity, Diana Wagman's is right up there with "Lolita" in terms of being extremely graphic and uncomfortably titillating. I explain what precisely is meant by "uncomfortably titillating" in my "Lolita" review from last December (if you're at all curious about that, which of course who wouldn't be?). There's also some big to-do about spontaneous combustion, and so partially explains the title. You might say this book gets hot, Hot, HOT -- in a sense. Because in a sense it does, several senses even.

I don't especially want to reveal which specific sort of perversity makes "Spontaneous" such an unusual novel, one that drew me in more than I would expect, too. And I would go so far as to put said perversity up there with Humbert Humbert's pedophilia. I think it's the same potent taboo that can cause one to cringe. Yes, Wagman pushes the envelope somewhat, but it works. It works surprisingly well.

And it begins with a bang -- Auntie Ned's. Culminating with the pronunciation, "Her hands clawed and scratched for the past. Remembering. Remembering. She was not sorry. Not sorry. Her heart detonated, a final shuddering explosion of surrender." Auntie Ned's demise sets a number of tones right from the start. Take for example that spontaneous combustion is a useful phenomenon for expressing the urgency of passion -- and it's passion, then, that informs the reader of all he or she needs to be aware of if he or she is to appreciate and find plausible the perversity to follow.

Two sisters, Amy and Gwendolyn Clark, take up residence in Auntie Ned's home immediately following her death, which is for a variety reasons is not verified as a case of spontaneous combustion. It is Amy's belief that this is what has happened, but Gwendolyn is skeptical. The pair of sisters are not blood relatives of Auntie Ned but instead the daughters of her close friend. They subsequently grew close to Ned and, accordingly, she bequeathed her home to them upon her death.

The sisters are described as opposites in obvious physical ways (both are beautiful but oppositely beautiful) and less obvious ways like temperament. Perversity, meanwhile, is only partly sexual in "Spontaneous." The other component of perversity is shown to be how people are willing to abuse and be abused, perhaps because sweet dreams are made of these eventualities.

Amy brings into the sisters' lives a well-meaning -- if not particularly intelligent -- carpenter with a dark past named Roosevelt. She does so ostensibly with the intention that he will correct the structural damage done to Auntie Ned's home after the accident, but she has another ulterior motivation that reveals itself later. Amy possesses a dominating, overbearing personality -- going so far as being the quintessence of Nietzsche's Will to Power. She imposes herself on her sister and others both actively and passively, manipulating circumstances with the ease of an omnipotent. But her ego is also her downfall. She is convinced she's the only one who knows the score, and this proves to be a fatal error.

As the pieces began to fall into place I felt myself tearing right along with the narrative at what felt like a breakneck pace. I just felt myself wanting answers, some of which were given and some of which were left to inference -- Wagman striking a nice balance in between. There were numerous auxiliary characters, though none more important than Dr. Gustave Minor.

He is Professor of Pyrophenomena at the Pittsburgh Center for the Study of the Paranormal, stating his name with the highfalutin and overwrought title attached, in introduction. A literal little person, Dr. Minor is also highly manipulative and likewise eager to advance his career with a teleological ethic, which in turn manifests itself in the unscrupulous tack he's willing to use to prove the existence of spontaneous combustion. Spontaneous combustion is his white whale, to be sure. It is a phenomenon he is certain exists but has never been able to prove because for whatever reason it has never been witnessed. Amy, he believes, may provide a solution to that problem with the horrifying conclusion he reveals to her, a conclusion that puts lives at stake. Sweet and decent lives.

It's awesome and good, as I see it. It's an ending you'll find you want to arrive at, for what it may prove or disprove but also for catharsis, because I believe ultimately that's a big part of what spontaneous combustion is, for both its victims and their next of kin. A great big fiery relief.

Other Literary Items:

I've read a few enjoyable short stories, which struck a chord with me, recently from various random online lit zines and that I thought I'd share them with the rest of the world via Internet. Here they are:

At Prick of the Spindle it's "Enough" by Rebecca Cross

At NANO Fiction it's "Self Starter" by Sophie Rosenblum

At DOGZPLOT it's "The Pig" by Ben Loory (whom I'm becoming a very big fan of, especially after really enjoying his recent New Yorker short story, "The TV")

And lastly, at Jersey Devil Press it's "The Old Man and the Shark" by Tara King

READ THEM ALL . . . IF YOU DARE!!!! (or read whichever strike your fancy, if any do (which they should))

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