>>Finally got around to it: January 2014
From the outset, I understood that my investigations into love must be conducted through the medium of flesh: what I seek lies beneath the skin, below bone, under organs, deeper than blood, beyond scalpel’s reach.
I accepted, too, that this path toward the truth would not travel through lush surfaces or shapely limbs.
(Pure science must always practice discrimination for which no apology is required; embracing one theory means coldly denying others.)
Human beings who are encased within less aesthetically fortunate shells have always provided the richest raw materials for research.
My thesis is built upon a single fundamental principle.
When desire denied too long is finally fulfilled, when withheld beauty is belatedly possessed, when longing for wing and flight are at last unshackled: such ecstatic experience can unleash extraordinary reactions that originate from the deeply buried, molten core of love.
My physical self, this form shaped and honed for satisfaction, provides the catalyst.
The Laboratory of Love, Patrick Roscoe’s eighth book (and first since 2001), is a globe-spanning collection of thirty-three short stories—twenty-six which have been previously published—divided into five thematic parts. These stories explore, often with un-tempered vulnerability, the darker sleeves of love and its ability to simultaneously uplift and destroy.
In the first part, the stories contain wounded, troubled children, overwhelming tones of parental abuse and/or neglect, abuse from elders, and possession—sometimes positive, often negative—by religion, employing a fair amount of cloud, sky, and angel wing imagery. In “The History of a Hopeful Heart,” the story offers an abstracted point of view of a child taken in the night who proceeds to fall for his captor and the violence that exists between them, his old life nothing more than a ruined shadow. “Angie, Short for Angel” follows the idea of a prostitute as an angelic receptacle for men’s scorn and abuse—loss of child and parental abandonment are both heavily implied.
The second part is a linked narrative of sorts following the lives of Honey. Honey is a stripper who ran away from her hateful mother, but is forced to send her son back to live with her. The first story in this section, “Honey,” sets the stage for the difficult grandmother-mother-son interaction; the second story, “The Real Truth,” further explores the life of Honey’s child, Billy; “Eureka, California” shows Billy’s birth and Honey’s brief reprieve in the town of Eureka before eventually returning to the life she’d hoped to escape; “Lucky” gives readers a better glimpse into Billy’s life as he adapts new identities to create barriers as a defence against shitty, abusive authority figures, and he sees glimpses of what his mother must have been like as a child; and in “After the Glitter and the Rouge,” Honey returns home to her mother after having had acid hurled in her face to learn that Billy has disappeared.
Part III offers another series of linked stories, this time following the lives of a Canadian family living abroad in Africa while their mother is in a psychiatric hospital in Brale, BC. Like in the book’s second part, the stories in Part III shift between different narrators and points in time. “Beggars” introduces readers to Ardis, the mother, while “The Lena Tree” continues the narrative from Mitch, the father’s perspective, and “Wild Dogs” jumps into the minds of the children to set the stage for one of them following in their mother’s unfortunate footsteps. The opening story to this section, “Rorschach II: The Black Hole,” is littered with imagery of births and abandonment, of black holes and needles related, potentially, to depression, drug use, and other possible struggles; the poetry of the writing in this section masks the truth of these issues and whether they happen to be internal or external realities. The story “Chiggers” is the strongest in this section.
The fourth part of Roscoe’s collection contains the book’s strongest story in “The Sacred Flame,” which also marks the first time I felt there was genuine passion and belief in a character’s development—interestingly enough, it’s a malevolent force that seeks only to destroy:
I believe in the sacred flame. When my father asks me to spread fire, I obey quickly and without question. Ours is not to wonder why; we’re here to carry out His commands. On one level, my duty is to cleanse through fear. At every funeral, the survivors look like they’ve been shaken hard by their near escape from flame; despite television and Xanax, they’ll never feel safe again. Extreme heat destroys germs, eradicates disease. Sin purifies into cinder. Ash absolves. Sprinkle it on wounds and sores. Strike the match and set them free. Let them feel the holy heat, raise them with smoke above this sick and troubled land, dissolve them into divinity. Then my works is done and my Father allows me to leave. The traumatized town will not notice I’m gone. There’s never a goodbye.
As well in this part we reconnect with the family from the third part in the story “The Murdered Child,” which jumps ahead in time so that we may see Lily, one of Ardis’ children, living a similar, solitary life in Brale, BC, after her mother’s death.
The final, and largest, part of the book pulls the camera back to offer a wider perspective on the collection as a whole. “The Tattoo Artist” is an elegant, fable-like tale of the price of deliberately marking one’s body as different, as “other,” and how one is forced to live with past decisions and indiscretions. “Hieroglyphics I: Only the Bird Knows the Wing” and “Hieroglyphics II: Only the Wing Knows the Flight” are a two-part meta-narrative that read as if the author has split himself in two and is detailing a love affair between the two halves. These stories read on some level as if the author is issuing a statement about the world’s inability to recognize his talent for what it is, and how frustrating it is that he hasn’t figured out how to allow himself to love and accept himself for who he is. “The Truth About Love” documents what it’s like to fall in love with a serial killer, and the fear that the slightest sea change might turn the tides of their relationship in life-threatening ways. And in “The Laboratory of Love” we’re given a glimpse into the overarching, Quantum Leap-style narrative that runs through all others in the collection, examining the relationships of all the previous stories from a pseudo-scientific perspective.
I had a difficult time making it through The Laboratory of Love. The book itself feels as if it’s in the middle of an identity crisis; it doesn’t know if it wants to be a mosaic-like collection of short stories or a novel culled from disparate but similar pieces. In the past, I’ve found I have quite an affinity for mosaic collections, where several of the stories (or all of them) are linked in some way. In The Laboratory of Love, however, I felt the linked nature of the collection was actually to its detriment. Mostly this is due to the fact that the family at the heart of so many of the stories was never interesting enough for me to feel any sort of connection to them. And while each of their stories is written from the perspective of another member of the family, there is little to no differentiation in voice; they feel uniform, dull, and without life. Secondly, the overarching efforts of the titular story, while at first blush an intriguing idea, were marred by its rather plodding nature and disaffected tone.
Additionally, Roscoe’s writing is uneven; while it is of a high intellectual measure throughout, it’s often overwritten, so delicately constructed and concise that it feels wholly inorganic—contributing, unfortunately, to the lifelessness of its characters. As a result of me not feeling drawn into the stories of these characters, I started noticing a regularly recurring writer’s tic—that Roscoe writes many of his descriptors and actions in three’s:
… the hallucinogenic heavens swam, swirled, spun.
Between the blank spaces, I visit the cash machine, the supermarket, the supplier of my medication.
Not by accident, from whimsy, for fancy.
This might seem inconsequential, but I noticed it enough times throughout the collection that it frequently pulled me out of what I was reading.
I suppose the most damning thing, however, is that despite the previous publication of most of these stories, only two or three of them really felt to me as if they could stand on their own—specifically “Chiggers,” “The Tattoo Artist,” and “The Sacred Flame.”
As I stated above, Roscoe’s writing is quite clean and elegant, but in the end there simply isn’t enough identifiable character or soul in The Laboratory of Love for me to recommend this book. It feels in many ways like a short fiction collection aspiring to be a weightier novel, but not succeeding at being either.