BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Varzen Dralmort, A. Kita, and Ifus’ (2013) Gratitude

8 March 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this already, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Varzen Dralmort & A. Kita’s (2013)[2] Gratitude

This is a novel by Furry authors (available here), with artwork by Ifus; the first I have read, from Rabbit Valley Press. The summary from the back of the book reads:

Where do you draw the line on family? Stephanie Marteling is loyal—some would say to a fault—so when her gay brother calls in the middle of the night and begs her to bail him out of jail, she bends over backward to save him. But that’s just the start of her problems. And his.

Gratitude is a sharp, modern novel about how far people can bend before they break, with plenty of intimate scenes to keep readers warm at night.

Remarkably, as far as backs of books go, this is a pleasantly succinct and accurate description of the book without giving the plot away. For those following at home, you know that I don’t read much fiction any more unless it is a graphic novel—I’m making an exception for some of PK Dick’s books and this as well, primarily because I was told by a trusted source that this book has “literary qualities,” by which I mean a more-than-average attention to language, imagery, sentence stylization, and that sort of thing that theoretically distinguishes literature from popular fiction. This makes Gratitude a bit strange, in my imagining of “Furry” fiction, because it seems that most of the stuff revolves often or heavily around issues of sexual self-discovery: the classic, young man goes to the Big City (or somewhere) and ends up coming out to himself and the world.

In its own way, Gratitude doesn’t transcend this theme, except that the story centers on the principal character (Stephanie, a ferret) realizing the limits of her own willingness to save others (especially her drama-queen adopted brother, Kip, a skunk, who seems determined to travel from one wreck to another in his life), even as she has her own sexual epiphanies along the way. However, the texture of the book introduces itself immediately, with the opening sentence:

As she parked, chewing unhappily on a thumb-claw, it was dark and she stank of fish, of butter-soaked Lobster Garden biscuits (“can I get you some more, need a refill?”) and smoke. Her smeared nametag reading “Steph” hung off the restaurant-standard blouse she’d pulled open when she’d clocked out as she slouched from a job with such a low glass ceiling that even the managers stooped. And she had a canker sore right between her lip and front teeth.

And it reaches something of a climax, or at least its fullest expression, in one obviously carefully crafted paragraph (set on the deck of an ocean liner) with an enormous sentence buried in it:

[Stephanie and Kip] sat in silence for a long while until Steph energetically popped up and leaned on the rail of the deck, the wind tousling her grown-out forelock. The ice in their drinks clinked and melted away, grew smaller and disappeared, and Steph felt her brother watch her as she stared straight out past the ship’s railing, down past the water’s wake churning and misting against the ship’s hull, then up past the golden moon reflected in her eyes. Images broke in Stephanie’s mind as she mined backward through history, back past college and the gap of high school to the sundrenched backyard with its swing set and chain-link, the Marteling house gleaming and three stories high with its back turned to the fence. And her, a young ferret slyly digging out the joys of tween fantasy novels and getting interrupted by her skunk brother insisting that he got the cookies right this time, carrying them out on a warm tray as she struggled to hide the pulp-grade chakats-and-gryphons book in her paw. And then again that same backyard and that same sunlight years later, when Kip hid in that same swing set with that same fantasy-romance as another argument in the house escalated and Steph would slink up behind him to rub his shoulders and—try as they might—keep their sharp ears from picking up the new bad news about Dad’s business and the mounting bills and the fatalistic tone creeping in so that it wasn’t until actually that last day, that day when her brother swung in the same set with her now as she held in her paws the very prequel to the book that he was holding in his under a sky greying over with overcast and the drops in air pressure making his ears hurt as the first vanguard rain from the storm began to drop like black snow on the pages that they were reading, the very lines that they were reading as an escape from it all, so that it was—despite every brash and unforeseeable boom of approaching thunder and the rustling of a much-too-cool breeze through the windbreak of trees sheltering the far side of their home—quiet, so quiet, when [their sister] spat out in her hackles-raising rasp, “Pack your shit. We’re livin’ in trailers” that that day did at last become their last day and inevitable. And then Kip ran away to drum school after she’d gone away to college. And he’d dropped out after she’d dropped out. And he’d wrecked his romances after she did hers. And maybe there’d never been anything classy to any of it. And maybe they’d never really been well-to-do, only comfortable at best. But still something had happened. Something had broken along a fault line in their lives. Something more than their father’s humiliation or the stress of their lives after the resort failed and they wound up in the wind. Something older still even than themselves, something down in the earth of Mahoney or in its air—all the dead of the native tribes of the Illiniwek people, all of their slain and their dispossessed.

“What went wrong with us, Kip?” Stephanie asked abruptly.

In the Furry fandom, which is very heavily oriented toward the production of visual artwork, there is a large amount of art shares, commissions, and sometimes jointly produced work (with line-work by one artist an coloring by another), but this is less frequent (I think) in written work, which is also otherwise very plentiful. And whenever there is a collaboration of writers, it becomes a theoretical point of interest to detect “who wrote what” or, more specifically, how do the parts of two writers come together (if they do) as one.

Looking at the table of contents, the book is divided into two parts (“Gratuity” and “Gratitude”) and so I suspected that one of the authors wrote part 1 and the other part 2, but I gave up on that idea by the novel’s end. The novel does begin in its first two chapters with a curious gesture: chapters 1 and 2 (“Prairie Needed New Things” dedicated to the sister Stephanie and “The Einstein Intersection,” dedicated to the brother Kip, respectively) have an overtly parallel structures. In both, the brother and sister travel to a parking lot in the middle of the night, theoretically to meet up with a love-interest, only to meet their replacement. For Stephanie, she arrives at a point of peace from this encounter; for Kip, he does something that lands him in jail (he also opportunistically has sex with his replacement).

This explicit parallelism doesn’t seem to come up again in the novel in such an exact way (despite the “Gratuity” and “Gratitude” section titles), and maybe that has something to do with the title of chapter 2, which openly refers to Delany’s (1967)[3] science fiction novella The Einstein Intersection. A main gist of Delany’s book explores how (mythological) narratives undergird and determine our lives so that, at the so-called point of the Einstein intersection, we have the opportunity to branch off of that mythical pattern and to forget new narratives. So if the brother and sister in Gratitude have some sort of shared life-trajectory (both originate as orphaned mustelids), then their paths branch at the moment of decision when Stephanie finds peace and Kip does not.

The remainder of the parallels between the brother and sister seem more muted or contrasting, which is to say I’m not sure how essentially the authors mean for them to be taken. Stephanie is overly responsible, makes sacrifices, takes on extra work, an gets into a generally healthy relationship (with a female co-worker), while Kip uses his ass to avoid responsibility, creates no shortage of excuses for avoiding work, and exploits someone who finds himself helplessly smitten by the skunk. The two main tensions in the novel (for the reader) involve (1) expecting Stephanie to finally stop rescuing Kip and (2) hoping that Kip will stop being  narcissist and sociopath an simply get right with life.

But whatever the deeper or shallower authorial intentions of these parallels (if there is some mythological basis underlying these narratives, I have no idea what they are and didn’t detect any), I raise them simply to wonder about the character of the collaboration here. It doesn’t seem like authorial duties are strictly split in depicting Stephanie and Kip, though both characters spend the greatest portion of the book not in the same chapters (or room) together.[4] And it doesn’t matter in any major way except that as an example of collaboration, particularly on a literary project, the theme of how collaborations occur is already storied and interesting in itself.

One of the things I appreciated in this novel was the presence of a prison narrative—or more precisely a jail narrative. We live in an era of mass incarceration and we live daily with the consequences of that invisible all around us. It is not entirely clear to me, however, what the authors intend to make of this theme. While Kip is jailed—and waiting trial (he ultimately takes a plea bargain for probation)—he preemptively becomes the “tank slut” with one of the older inmates in protective custody with him. In effect, he again uses his ass (and muzzle) to put himself in a position of safety, and after his protector paroles, he first tries to make a play for one of the jail guards (without success) an then winds up in solitary confinement after he attacks another jail inmate. During this time of maximum isolation, he decides to study accounting (i.e., to finally responsibly get his life together), but once he gets probation and is released to shack up with his new boyfriend, all of that goes by the wayside.

On his sister’s side, there may be some attempts to parallel Kip’s incarceration, though her “imprisonment” is only an analogy: she is a wage slave an partially responsible for her own predicament, since it I her desire to raise enough money to bail her brother out that puts her in various difficult ways.

Not merely as an aside: I use the terms “brother” and “sister” to refer to Kip and Stephanie, but they are in fact not related. She is a ferret, he is a skunk, and both come from the same orphanage. As an adopted person myself, I on the one hand appreciate the inclusion of this theme but on the other don’t see a lot of following through on the imaginable details that could be involved. There is, in addition, a third sibling, who is born of the mother and father that adopt Kip an Stephanie. But it remains unclear if Kip’s sociopathy is linked by the authors (or should be) to his adoption, whether Stephanie’s excessive devotion to him should be (one could probably make more of a case for this), and whether the third sibling’s relationship with her sister and brother is informed by their adoption.

The basic narrative purports Mr. and Mrs. Marteling as benevolently good people, an Stephanie at least seems to be represent a “properly acculturated” adoptee, with all of the proper gratitude toward her prints. I feel like it would be gratuitous to lambaste this book for having a “standard” or “naïve” reproduction of the discourse of adoption—it seems a question of innocence on the part of the authors, rather than willful ignorance. Because Stephanie is a ferret and Kip I a skunk, the mere fact of this would seem to require adoption to some extent. (I can’t remember, but I think Mr. and Mrs. Marteling themselves are minks.) So, for whatever reason Stephanie and Kip were not the same species, this means (simply as a logical narrative consequence) that one or both of them would be adopted. And so the trope of adoption winds up in the novel without the authors necessarily feeling like they should or ought to explore it in any depth.

And to be  kind of fair, there is nothing that says all adoptions play out interpersonally in problematic ways. Stephanie acclimatized to her adoptive family; Kip didn’t; it happens. But adoptees might still feel this begs the question. At a minimum, it reproduces the standard discourse about adoption (consciously or not, deliberately or not), n we certainly don’t really need more recitations of that. Challenges to it would be better.

All the more so, given that Kip seems to be a sociopath. However, much as I want to object to the depiction of the adoptee as maladjusted sociopath,[5] he’s obviously contrasted with the book’s other adoptee, who though far too accommodating also overcomes that fact by the book’s end. As the back of the book suggests, it’s precisely what Stephanie needs to get over, and she does. So even if she is the hopelessly “good girl” of adoption, she at least sheds that much of herself when she finally rejects her brother’s continuing calls for help.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Dralmort, V., and Kita, A. (2013). Gratitude. Las Vegas, NV: Rabbit Valley Press, pp. 1–438.

[3] Delany, S. R. (1967). The Einstein intersection. New York: Ace Books.

[4] I mean that the chapters for each character could have been written separately by each author.

[5] In Whedon’s (2013) Avengers, for instance, we have the following exchange (from here):

Bruce Banner: I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him.

Thor: Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother!

Natasha Romanoff: He killed eighty people in two days.

Thor: He’s adopted.

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