FIRST LIFE | Marianne Villaneuva.
Long-running literary magazine Juked is one of my favorite destinations for amazing storytelling. Even as web-based literary journals have come and gone (we’ll miss you, PANK), Juked has published new prose and poetry pretty consistently and maintained a high quality throughout that time. And the journal isn’t afraid to take risks: its works frequently dabble in a variety of genres, voices, and nontraditional forms. Today’s featured piece, “First Life,” is a very good example of the magazine’s outside-the-mainstream tendencies.
The piece is nothing if not strange, though I wouldn’t say the story or plot itself is strange. No, the story isn’t especially out of the ordinary, but its narrator (a boy by the name of Dragon) makes up for that in spades, with a wildly unusual voice and bendy-spoon perspective that basically defamiliarize the story’s world in its entirety. If you’ve read the piece already, you know what I mean. The language is hallucinatory, dreamlike, both topsy-turvy and vivid. Some sort of concrete, non-Dragon-skewed reality comes in now and then like bars of sunlight through closed blinds, but for the most part, the language is fragmentary, weaving into interior consciousness, going outside to the physical world, sliding back into the narrator’s unreliable inner life. It’s a really exciting, rewarding piece, though admittedly one of the more challenging short stories we’ve featured here.
Let’s try to describe what happens. No doubt opinions will vary, which is just fine, but there are certainly a few plot elements we can all agree on.
I looked up a couple of the terms that appear in this piece, which helped to contextualize some of what’s going on. Consider the opening:
Ever since they moved our colony from Tonle Sap to the Philippines, my mind hasn’t been the same.
Okay, so our donnée has to do with the narrator and his group having been relocated (not by choice, we infer) from “Tonle Sap” (I looked it up: it’s a place in Cambodia) to the Philippines. Great, we have some real-world geography to latch onto.
Well, yes and no. Consider this line:
Twilight. Snow starts. I still don’t have a solution. I tell the snow, Go ahead, seal us in. Soon as class ends, we’ll all scurry back to our holes.
Snow? In the Philippines? Clearly, this world is not the same as ours, despite the familiar location.
I posit that this story takes place in some dying colony, post-nuclear apocalypse, and the snow is perhaps a nuclear-winter situation. Consider that people like Dragon’s teacher, Lizard Eyes, have been exposed to Strontium 90 (a radioactive isotope). So our social context, though it’s not clearly presented by our narrator (whose mind, he admits, “hasn’t been the same”) is something along the lines of the End of Humanity.
The characters are school kids: our narrator, Dragon, is sitting in a classroom along with his friend (friend with benefits?) Her, and we’re also joined by Big (who’s an asshole) and Drinker (Big’s friend, less of an asshole) and Lizard Eyes–the professor who gives them a test, and whose eyes glow, due presumably to his Strontium exposure back in the day. This is the future, and when the test is finished, their computer screens float away.
I love the names, by the way.
Oh yeah, and in addition to Dragon’s bleak existence, plus the fact that he’s way unstable cognitively, we also have to deal with the fact that Big (spoiler) slams Her’s head against her desk and knocks her out cold (yet it is Dragon, not Big, who gets kicked out of the classroom–go figure). Along the way, we get lots of introspection on Dragon’s part, much of it observing the overall bleakness of this waning civilization, as well as stuff to do with the class/test he and the others are taking, which it’s unclear just what the subject is, to be honest. It seems to be related to rules of their society, as well as the existence of the individual (“the Subject”) within that system, but it’s presented for the most part in dialogic fragments with little to no context, so good luck figuring out just what academic domain they’re in here.
The piece is dreamlike, very hallucinatory, and the quasi-academic banter adds to the otherwordliness of this piece. The dialogue is almost surreal in its semi-referentiality (it almost makes sense, but not quite…).
Focus! Autonomous morality, not conformity. The X for Morality and suppression of the antagonistic impulse.
Was the sampling sufficient?
Was sufficient allowance made for—?
The evidence. Where is the evidence?
Voluminous this morning, but now vanished.
See what I mean? This story’s semantic choppiness reminds me of a lot of the experimental prose-poetry I’ve been seeing in recent years. It also reminds me of the voices in the art-novel Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski (haven’t read his newest one yet; it’s waiting on the shelf).
Like Revolutions, this story’s style suggests the author took a straightforward set of narration and dialogue and took it apart, then reassembled it like a skeleton; the bones are the same, but the skin-work around them is wildly different.
Let me show you what I mean:
Question: How did Big ever make it to Academy? Slow as slow.
Out there, where swish swish goes something, maybe the wind.
Muddiness, I say. It’s all muddiness. Extinction. I rise slowly from my seat. Go, go, go.
If you think about them, all of these sentences are totally comprehensible. “Slow as slow” is a kind of failed simile that suggests some sort of language impairment on the narrator’s part; “swish swish goes something” is a quirky inversion; “Muddiness, I say. It’s all muddiness” suggests, again, that the narrator’s ability to communicate is mired in oblique metaphors and fragmentation. Dragon speaks very little to the other characters.
I show these examples to highlight one of the author’s strategies, which is defamiliarization through verbal constructions and word choices. The style is far from random; it gives the story a post-civilization, post-human quality that’s very compelling and incredibly original. Although earlier I distinguished between the content of the story and its style/form, in truth these are two dimensions of the same thing. This writing style pulls the reader into its otherworldly environment in a way that no amount of exposition ever could. The reader must surrender to the terms of the story. Not every reader will be comfortable doing this, but those who do will be rewarded with a truly memorable reading experience.