Spilling Clarence / Anne Ursu
New York: Hyperion, c2002.
I picked up this one on a bit of a whim: nice cover, it's about memory, writing seems ok... and I am glad I did! I really enjoyed this first novel by Anne Ursu (I have a copy of her second novel, The Disapparation of James, but haven't read it yet).
The premise is that the town of Clarence, a quiet, peaceful place that depends on the local college and the local pharmaceutical plant for employment, suffers a chemical spill. The customers in Davis & Dean, local chain bookstore, have to stay put until the warning is lifted -- and this introduction to the characters sets up the style and tone of the rest of the book:
This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence are asked to stay where they are. Repeat, stay where you are. This is not a test. All residents of Clarence, stay inside. Stay tuned to this station for further instructions...
Outside the window of the store, creatures covered in yellow billowy plastic begin to appear, carting road blocks.
The customers in the bookstore start.
What the --
Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life. Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys are in the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for Chernobyl, not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do not have a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite clearly need a yellow suit.
People begin to stare at each other more frankly. They appraise obviously, guiltlessly. Their eyes ask, Who are these people? Is one of them responsible? Are they all bystanders too, hostages in a movie, trapped in an elevator, on a bus with a bomb? Will we be huddled here, days later, on the floor, dirty and thin? One person always dies. One is always afraid. One is brave and sneaks through the vents and frees us all. The rest are extras, with muddy, panicked faces, providing occasional squeals and moans.
And through the room, the thought passes: I am an extra. The time has come, and I am just an extra. ...
A dozen lives flash before a dozen pairs of eyes, and the reckoning begins: Nothing. I've done nothing. I am nothing. I am a waste. It has all been wasted. I could have done so much. I would have done it all differently. Now I become a cancerous blob with a tail and too many toes, a living hideous monument to failure and regret.
But our heroes do not reckon. Reckoning is for people whose lives have motion. Susannah Korbet and Bennie Singer look at their lives at the same moment and find that they feel nothing.
Of course, they look at the present. They stalwartly refuse to awaken what lies in memory.
The story circles around a few groups of people who bump into each other in various ways. Professor Bennie Singer, his daughter Sophie, and his mother Madeline are one such group. At Sunny Shadows, Madeline's retirement community, there are her friends and even a possible suitor. Into this mix comes Susannah Korbet, whose boyfriend Todd works in the labs at the college, studying memory. Then there are all the characters offstage, in their memories, who reappear, sometimes disastrously, when the chemical spill begins to have its effect. The airborne chemical was deletrium, which has the capability of unlocking all the parts of the brain which hold memory. It acts randomly, causing differing reactions; Madeline's suitor Calvin, who was at the liberation of Dachau, is rendered catatonic by those memories. We are let into the lives of the main characters quite deeply, shown how their suppressed memories make up their identities, but we also graze by quite a number of incidental characters. Some of these are Sophie's teacher, Ms. Plum; a few neighbors; some schoolchildren; each has a page or a paragraph of their memories slipped in, and each time it was like seeing a whole other story developing in just a few words.
This theme has the potential to become heavy handed and depressing, but Ursu writes with humour and with a polished style that is compassionate yet distanced, not becoming maudlin. She blends all the characters' storylines effectively, with only a few blank spots showing -- for example, Todd, Susannah's boyfriend, is a bit of a cipher; not enough background on him to know who he is, and since he is mysteriously largely unaffected by the spill we don't get the goods on him. Still, I loved the idea of the story, and was delighted by the writing. Formal yet playful, it allowed for digressions on ideas of memory and the uses of forgetting, without losing the narrative thread.
There were a couple of elements to the story which I found a bit flawed. One was that the characters all tended to sound fairly similar, especially in one vocal tic that more than one character revealed -- the tendency to say someone's name repeatedly, ie: Todd often says "Zana, Zana, Zana, Zana". This is acceptable on its own, but later Madeline comes out with the same speech pattern, talking to Sophie and to Calvin, but since Todd and Madeline haven't even met it doesn't make sense for both of them to use it. I also wonder why, in the course of all these resurgent memories, was each character affected so terribly -- they were all traumatized, sad, unhinged by the flooding memories. Surely someone, somewhere, must have recalled something good? Perhaps she was making the point that we tend to suppress the bad memories, not wanting to deal with the emotions they bring up.
Nevertheless, this book was very enjoyable. I appreciated Ursu's style, as well as the numerous characters she had in play throughout. By ranging from a six year old to an octogenarian soldier she allowed for many experiences and recollections to be included, which resulted in a story full of moments that make you examine your own memories, or your patterns of dealing with emotional trauma.
Part of the charm of the story is the idea of reassessing your life after truly seeing your past. There is another fictional character who is the template for this kind of renewal, and Ursu gives him a nod -- let me give you a hint. The book ends at Christmas; the first line is "The break room microwave is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." This line seemed vaguely familiar and I puzzled over it until I suddenly recalled Jacob Marley.
Setting, characters, theme, language -- I enjoyed them all. It's a great first novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the next.