Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Slow Horror That Is Love

Courtney Eldridge, Ghost Time

Thea loves her boyfriend, Cam, so thoroughly that we know tragedy is coming. But nobody expects his complete disappearance. As police and FBI begin combing after Cam, Thea’s high school life, already precarious, comes undone. And that’s even before she discovers massive graffiti in her own handwriting, and intimate videos of moments that never happened. The impossible quickly becomes commonplace.

Courtney Eldridge’s first novel for teens brims with psychological depth and moments of quiet horror. It also reeks of smug self-conscious artistry and author-centric “experimental” literature. Eldridge can, in a single paragraph, hit readers with a sucker punch of Shirley Jackson-esque evil, then laugh it off with a timid grin. I cannot recall easily the last time I’ve simultaneously loved and hated a novel as much as this one.

After Cam vanishes, leaving no trace, Thea’s life unstitches dramatically. Cam’s website starts featuring pictures Thea, a gifted artist, only imagined in her head, and videos of sexual encounters she only fantasized. She clearly hears the voice of a teenaged girl mute since birth. Ruminations she wrote in her diary get spraypainted, in her handwriting, on school buses. Suddenly she finds her inner life splashed across national headline news.

Thea tells her story with dark urgency. She’s decorated her life with images of 1970’s punk bands and nihilism, yet believes in true love. She can swing between heartbeats from loving Cam absolutely and blaming him for the impossible stew her life has become. She reveals a rich mindscape, colored by chilling encounters with teenage society’s dark side, even as she seems blind to her own contradictions.

As Thea unfolds her story forward and backward simultaneously, she reveals little nuggets suggesting she doesn’t know herself nearly as well as she thinks. Little moments from the past have parallels in the present, implying Cam has a manipulative side verging on abusive. But Thea has scripted her dark postmodern romance so tightly that she misses her own clues. She’s the epitome of the unreliable narrator.

She’s also one of the best examples I’ve seen recently of perfect self-destruction. By her own admission, she so completely expects others to hurt her that, to assert control, she hurts herself worse, first. We’ve all known girls like that (guys, too, but culture accepts such demonstrative seppuku more in girls). Even when life goes her way, she expects imminent disappointment, and lives like a ticking bomb.

Thea’s frustrated romance and perforated reality make a strange intersection, Nicholas Sparks meets Dark City. But that’s good. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love knows those feelings make you see your world in new ways. Separated from its Valentine’s Day trappings, love is scary, upending everything we think we know. Except, for Thea, this upending isn’t mere metaphor; her old assurances are literally gone.

This makes a promising premise. Sadly, instead of grabbing us and shaking us vigorously, Eldridge unfolds this story so slowly that her 400 pages seem much longer. Thea, as first-person narrator, packs her story with so many discursions and flashbacks that her telling often takes longer than the events. Her casual, unstructured voice litters the story with false starts and weird verbal tics that lose potency on the printed page.

Eldridge also doesn’t bother with such niceties as quotation marks or paragraph breaks. Huge blocks of dialog take place with minimal indication who’s talking, or when we switch between voices. We reread passages several times to follow the dialog, which slows our reading, deflating otherwise tight scenes. I get that Eldridge wants us feeling as confused, desperate, and helpless  as Thea. I get that. This felt revolutionary when Chuck Palahniuk and Roddy Doyle first did it, but the novelty has worn off.

On top of everything else, Eldridge doesn’t even properly conclude this book. She ends abruptly on some massive revelations and a huge plot twist for her heroine, and then, SCREE-EECH! Seems the publisher neglected to mention, anywhere on the review edition, that this is the beginning of a trilogy. I had to check the author’s website to understand her abrupt, confusing, unsatisfying end, which confuses more than it clarifies.

I kept wanting to like this book. Eldridge gives me plenty to enjoy: smart characters, a complex situation, ambiguous relationships, all the textures of great psychological thrillers. But she also keeps putting herself between me and her story. Whenever I got invested, she found some way to remind me I was reading a story. I’ll probably read the next volume, but only in spite of the author.

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