I’m busy as hell with preparations for the second Orcas book, getting ready for a literary festival in April, and working on another huge project that’s devouring hours of my time. But here’s a piece based on something “from the trunk”. It’s about grotesquerie; the worst part of any book.
I’ve been handed some grotesque things to read in my life. A writer gave me a story about a couple who mutilated each other as part of their sex lives. He had the good sense to say, ”You might not want anything to do with me after you read this.” After forty pages of necrophilia, torture, self-mutilation, incest, matricide and so forth, I understood why he was worried. I believe he’d scared himself. That one was eventually published.
Years ago, someone I met in a writer’s group sent out 76 copies of his manuscript to various members, hoping for response. And I after I started reading it, I knew I’d never give him a response he’d enjoy hearing. The writing was endless ”telling” from a great height, the narrator looking down and pontificating madly on the chaos of the story. There wasn’t a shred of likeability or humanity in most of the characters, and the rare few who displayed any humanity were punished in one sadistic twist after another. After a point I set aside the red pencil, realizing that since no publisher in the world would ever want to publish this, there was no need to offer editorial advice.
The author wrote me, saying he was disappointed that only three or four people seemed to have finished it. I didn’t tell him that a mutual friend had told me she’d ”set it aside and gone to throw up and take a shower.” I decided stunned silence was a merciful thing. If people had told him what they really thought, he might have gone on a homicidal rampage and acted out some of the more vicious tableaux in this book.
There are plenty of published books that contain cannibalism, which is where I draw the line. I can’t read about it. A few books that contain it have made it past my censors–John Dollar by Wiggins, Shallows by Tim Winton, and Ahab’s Wife by…somebody, which was an incredible disappointment because the first third of the book, before they stepped on that whaling ship, was so damn good. Actually, these were all good books that I wish I’d never read. I’m sure these writers are making a big fat metaphorical point, I just can’t stomach their metaphor, so the point is always lost on me. I wish all books that contain cannibalism had a big red warning ”C” on the cover.
The same thing with animal abuse. A friend loaned me two books that contained animal abuse. Like, just handed them to me casually with a “You’ll like these,” no warning, nothing. Thanks, Friend! The books were The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and Wide Open by Nicola Barker. The first title is disturbing and extremely well-written. I had a glimpse of the hidden shocker, but only a glimpse. I’m good at figuring out the mysteries in the Gothic, but this time, the ending did surprise me. It all fit together beautifully. Wide Open was next. I liked it and wished I’d had the opportunity to discuss it, because beneath the plot shocks, sick humor and odd characters, there is a metaphysical twist that I haven’t quite figured out.
Because of the grotesque subject matter, I would never just hand these books off to a friend without a warning. Can you easily recommend a book that’s strength is its ability to illuminate the mindset of a character committing unthinkable, unforgivable acts, and to stir you to a horrified sympathy with that character? You have to loan these books carefully, but I have given Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, to more than one friend, and it’s one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. I think it’s completely worth it.
This all brings me to my own experience with writing something unforgivably grotesque. Apparently, when describing some of the itchy ailments suffered by Asa Strug in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I use the phrase “butt rust.” And my friend Alex was horrified by this. She said, “I can’t believe you made me read the words butt rust, Karen!” She was upset and disgusted. I didn’t even remember putting that in the book, to be honest. So I had to go find it.
IT WAS THURSDAY morning, and the most contented man in the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park was no longer content. He itched from head to toe. His hands rummaged through his locks as if they were sorting snakes, as if his torment could be shaken free like the louse that fell by the cracked nail of his largest toe.
“Lord, send relief.”
His hands moved to scratch at his bitten, scabby neck. He tore at the skin, tears in his eyes, his teeth grinding with frustration.
“I am bedeviled.”
He stood and reached for his back, his privates, his stomach. It was more than bugs. Years of not bathing had left him with crotch rot, butt rust, and between-the-toe fungus that made his toes appear webbed. His body was nothing more than a collection of maddening itches. He dug and writhed and came dangerously close to taking the name of the Lord in vain.
“Lord! I need vinegar!”
Look, that is really gross. I wrote it, and I own it. I had no choice but to submit to Alex’s disgust, because upon rereading, that passage is sick. Sick, but necessary, as Asa is trapped in a body as tormented as his mind.
So after Alex chastised me for a bit more, she asked me to read a book she loved. It was Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. I love Lynda Barry, I’ve met her and I’m a fan of her person and her work; but have you read this book? It’s good and tragic and funny, and it contains so much gross stuff, scabs and flakes and itches that are exponentially worse than the phrase “butt rust.” Cruddy even needs to have that big reg “C” on the cover, for cannibalism.
Alex had no trouble with anything in Cruddy. But she couldn’t handle “butt rust.”
Consider this a pledge: You will never read a book that contains cannibalism written by me. But I just might break out “butt rust” again. So be prepared.