Review: Attemptations, by Kim Clark

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: January 2012

The shot startles me. I turn automatically. Start running back. I’m thinking, if she isn’t dead, the second blast could be for me, for what I have that she doesn’t.

I wish I had not gone back. I wish I could remember her the way she was when I first laid eyes on her, sitting in the spring sun, thin straps, bathed in yellow. She was waiting for me, the first blast a fading echo as I rounded the shed. She placed the pistol in her mouth. Slowly squeezed the trigger. Everything out of sight and out of reach.

***

Attemptations, the first book of short fiction from BC’s Kim Clark, is a darkly comic collection of nine economical and often melancholy stories. Using a loose, length-driven hierarchy, Attemptations quickly builds from short stories of only a few pages, to a pair of almost novella-length narratives to close out the collection.

With a punctuated style and tone similar to Carolyn Black’s The Odious Child, Kim Clark’s stories offer up a darker slice of individuality. Her characters are universally flawed, often with physical manifestations to their idiosyncrasies. Often times employing an extraneous narrative mechanic (barbeque instructions, medical terminology, and repetitive—and manipulative—nomenclature), the stories in Attemptations are quite deliberately structured; Clark’s writing is organized and neat, leaving little to chance, as noted in the lovely play on words detailed in the final sentence of the passage quoted at the start of this review—taken from the third tale in the collection, “Mr. Everything.”

Though Attemptations starts strong (the aforementioned “Mr. Everything” is an early standout), it stumbles a bit in its middle section with a trio of stories—“Lucky Strike”, “Flickering”, and “Tangled Threads”—that are unfortunately bereft of strong characters or intriguing premises.

Following the slower-than-desired mid-section, the collection rebounds with “Aphylaxis”, and then hits its stride with the two longest pieces: “Solitaire” and “Six Degrees of Altered Sensation.” The latter, in particular, is the last strongest piece in the collection. The protagonist, Mel, who is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, is witty, acerbic, and at times manically focused around the number six—six being her placement on the Kurtzke Expanded Disability Status Scale, the number of fingers on one hand of Marvin, a man she’s attracted to, and the number of orgasms she’s expected to have before she loses all sensation to her disability. In Mel’s own words:

Again, I ready myself—get a little dolled up. Between hair and makeup, I text the mystery texter with three quick before-I-change-my-mind messages, allowing for slightly more honesty than I can muster with friends, acquaintances, or medical professionals.

  • recruiting volunteers to have sex with hot disabled chick
  • position open immediately
  • sliding pay scale

Attemptations is a strong first collection for Kim Clark. Though some of the stories lack the polish of the first few and of the two novella-length narratives, the quality of this collection is readily apparent.

Review: The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

>>Published: August 2008

>>Finally got around to it: January 2012

It was interesting: this was her first humorous comment regarding her own mental state. I thought it might be the opening I’d been waiting for, and I asked her—pointing out that she had already discussed my burns with my doctors—with what condition she had been diagnosed. She shut down the topic by stating that the doctors simply didn’t understand her particular brand of charm.

She reached into her rucksack and pulled out a small leather-bound book. She wanted to start reading it aloud to me, she said. The Inferno, by Dante. An interesting choice for the burn ward, I commented, and added that despite my love of literature, this was one classic that I had never read.

She smiled as if she knew something that I did not. She had a very strong feeling, she said, that I would find the story not only to my liking, but very familiar.

***

A cocaine buzz, a bottle of bourbon, and a Good Friday near-death experience (complete with the flaming wreckage of a car). So begins Andrew Davidson’s #1 National Bestseller The Gargoyle, a love story seven hundred years in the making—or a textbook case of schizophrenia, substance abuse, and severe art therapy.

The unnamed narrator—a porn star with a dark past—crashes his car in the book’s opening, nearly burning to death in the process. As he endures endless procedures and months of slow, agonizing rehabilitation (the pleasure-through-pain metre spikes into torture porn on more than one occasion throughout the narrative), he comes to befriend a number of the hospital’s personalities, including a psych ward patient named Marianne Engel. Marianne is a sculptor of gargoyles and grotesques, and she has a secret: the unnamed narrator and her are lovers, entwined for seven hundred years. How does she know this? Because she has been alive all that time, waiting patiently for his inevitable return.

The Gargoyle doesn’t do anything particularly new, nor does it do anything particularly well. This is a standard, airport-novel love story masquerading as high concept historical fiction. Star-crossed lovers, loads of strife, coming together in miraculous ways… Through its ambitious multi-century plot, The Gargoyle seeks a larger mindshare than its narrative is able to achieve. While the unnamed hero and Marianne are interesting enough as redemption-seeking archetypes—he, dealing with a metaphorical abuse-slinging snake trapped in his spine, calling him a loser, telling him what a waste of life he is; her, withering to skin and bone as her need to sculpt and satisfy her three ethereal masters literally eats away at her body and mind—it’s the narrative and how it binds them that fails to deliver.

As Marianne slowly divulges the secret of the past she’s shared with the narrator, she peppers their history with tangents—of other great loves and sacrifices throughout history, their similarities at once unsettling and encouraging. While these stories are interesting, they do little to advance the notion of there being a great, pre-existing love between Marianne and the charred husk of a man she claims to have known for longer than he will ever remember. These stories feel inconsequential, save for a single chapter near the end where we are returned to them through a forced and unnecessarily lengthy head-trip, a cause of the protagonist’s rather sudden drug withdrawal.

The main show is Marianne’s recollection of the great love of her life. While at first intriguing, this story quickly becomes infuriating—the resolution of this tale, and the Deus ex Machina that saves her from death (and gives forced structure to the main narrative and the hearts she gives away in each and every statue she’s created) are without weight, as the three spirit masters that enter her life are devoid of narrative-established real world context. In essence, hers is the sole supernaturally spared life in existence—how she survives carries no meaning beyond a device to serve the narrative.

Had the side stories been different versions of these two, reincarnated throughout time and always ending in tragedy, I might have felt more of a connection to their great love. Had those seven hundred years Marianne spent alive and alone been documented in more than a passing manner, this novel might have had a leg to stand on. Had the resolution of their love been more than a suicidal slap in the face, I might have felt their journey was worthwhile. Sadly, the book’s only truly interesting narrative thread is to do with a lost, thought to be impossible early German translation of Dante’s The Inferno. Unfortunately, this single plot line is not strong enough to distract from the book’s many problems.

The more I contemplate this book, the angrier I get—not at poor writing or insufficient tone, but at missed opportunities and narrative convenience. The Gargoyle has an interesting premise, but unfortunately remains only a premise with too little meat on its slightly roasted carcass.