Review: The Originals

28Dec10

I remember hearing the idea that the rise and continued popularity of video games is connected with current generations living under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.  The theory goes something like this: a generation that could have the rug pulled out from under it (at any time, no matter what they do) will eventually gravitate to games where you spend a certain amount of frantic energy before you’re inevitably killed.  Of course, this is just an idea that happens to fit a couple of facts, and there is really no direct evidence to support the link.

But it’s an interesting thought.  And depending on how much it worried me at any given time, I remember growing up with the feeling that an inhuman thing could pull the plug on my whole life and that of everyone I loved.  Game over.  Some of the memorable moments in The Originals, by L.E. Vollick, come along when the world spins out of control.  Here is the narrator, young “Magpie” Smith, relating a personal nightmare:

“It’s when I’m watching her that it happens.  And I’m telling PK about how the room shatters with all this light.  I mean it’s all falling apart.  We’re being knocked into atoms quicker than I can blink, and it’s so hot, I can feel the flesh slipping off my skin like it was a pair of rubber gloves.  The light – it just gobbles us whole.  And then there’s nothing.”

I found this passage powerful, but also noticed a few similarities to a moment later in the book, when Magpie is struggling with a bad night, and very real conflict among friends:

“Grime under my fingernails, pushed in further from me scratching at the table.  Everything spinning.  Could be the shrooms, or maybe the beer and tequila.  Everything melting inward, my hands suddenly stretching.  The table’s slick, like the wood’s been bawling, glistening with spilt pitchers.”

The metaphor created here is the nuclear flash of personal upheaval, and only those who have never been told point blank that someone they love is dead or faced another trauma would argue that strong personal shocks can’t feel like being hurled into a different world — a sudden extermination of the life you knew.

Smith and her friends (all regulars at a club called The Underground) are the disenfranchised: “But all the sudden I’m bowled over by it, how sad it is that my mother didn’t have any choices.  Then I’m sad for me – because suddenly I want some choices in my life too.  And I don’t know where to get them.”  As a way to emphasize our occasional helplessness against fate, nuclear or otherwise, Vollick chooses to ally the reader with the poorest kids in her microcosm of a neighbourhood.  This is not to say the novel suggests that rich kids are immune or non-existent, but the lack of choice our main characters face draws attention not just to worlds in peril but to the smaller scale: those overlooked and quietly eliminated.

Magpie and her friends turn to The Underground for sanctuary and community.  Throughout the novel the regulars (rule #1 is “Belong to the club, and the club will belong to you,” rule #3 is “Don’t fuck with the Regulars”) begin to suffer a strain on the community.  Magpie merely reacts to events at first, then begins to take a more active role before finally reaching her own crisis point.  Maybe this is what Vollick is trying to say here: the idea that if we all face various personal, nuclear flashes, it’s how we react to them, and what we carve out between them that means everything.  Vollick also grounds her novel, and social commentary, in some characters that are almost immediately real.  When Magpie’s mother says, “I’m proud of you.  Even if you do look ridiculous,” it’s exactly the kind of well meaning yet backhanded compliment parents sometimes say.

On a purely personal level, I enjoyed some of the nostalgic touches to be found here.  It seemed at times that my generation was destined to go on hearing about youth in the sixties forever, so it’s a pleasure to read a novel that casually refers to Battlestar Galactica or Poltergeist.  The casual references to a few elements from pop culture, while sounding a bit forced at times, also help ground the characters in reality.

The book could be a little shorter, and at times it spells out what it’s trying to say a little too clearly.  Magpie describes another character as “like a baby bird, vulnerable and sweet and not tough enough,” when readers are smart enough to know what she means just by “like a baby bird,” without further explanation.  But these are minor complaints.  If you like your novels meaningful and carefully written — this is not to say poetic or overdone — Vollick is a writer to watch.  As the beginning of the twenty-first century turns threatening, she introduces here a grounded, very human novel, with people navigating daily life while governments rumble in the background like approaching storms.  It’s also a reminder of the world mere mortals (who don’t happen to have names like Ronald Reagan) struggled with when the Russians and Americans were at odds: the world the way it was a few life changing flashes ago.

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