by Ben Ehrenreich
City Lights, 2011
144 pages / $13.95 buy from City Lights
Towards the beginning of Ben Ehrenreich’s sophomore novel Ether, we are introduced to an unnamed bag man who carries around his worldly possessions in three bags, which he drags with him wherever he shuffles. The bag man lives in a smoky, charred, polluted world (probably Los Angeles), one where a great calamity appears to have recently occurred, and one where an even greater calamity looms. The world is filled with bands of hostile kids who seem to have outgrown childish pranks and are instead on to kidnapping and torture. The world is also filled with video cameras, some active, some not … all menacing. After a series of unusual setbacks, the bag man eventually falls in with a homophobic priest, two crippled twins in wheelchairs, and several other sad-sack characters, and goes on a search for a vaguely Beast-like figure in a white suit.
If you want Apocalyptic plotlines, Ehrenreich certainly delivers.
Ether is an unusual road journey novel. For all its slimness, it tells the stories of a surprisingly vast array of characters, many of whom join the bag man’s search for uncertain reasons. Almost none of the characters has many redeeming qualities (those kids, that preacher), and it’s unclear what the object of their search, an unnamed “stranger” carrying a powerful, mysterious weapon, would resolve if they were indeed to find him. But for Ehrenreich, the setup here is more important than the journey or its resolution. A true “writer’s writer,” he doesn’t so much tell a story as imply it, using layers of characterization and subterfuge. All the characters seem averse to those video cameras. The only two characters he depicts as innocents are sensory-deprived – a blind grandmother being poisoned by a child, and a deaf-mute who briefly provides the “stranger” shelter. The “stranger”’s weapon is revealed to actually bring things back to life – a kind of Lazarus machine. The “stranger” himself becomes by the end of the novel both a Beast- and a Christ-figure … and surprisingly ineffective in both roles. Oddity piles up on top of oddity here, and horror piles up on top of horror.
This would all be painful to read, of course, if it weren’t for Ehrenreich’s amazing skills as a writer. For one thing, it’s surprising how funny this book is. For example, the priest character – who stutters, of course – agrees to go on the quest with the bag man, but draws a line in the sand. “So don’t t-try and kiss me or slobber all over me and don’t p-p-put your hand on my upper leg, on my thigh or on my hip or my b-b-b-buttock, and think I’ll just leave it there. I don’t need a backrub at any time.” A white supremacist needle-points (!) the phrase “Judo Maus” into a canvas, and then tells his friends proudly, “It means ‘white pride, I think. Or ‘white power.’”
It helps, of course, if you are the type of reader (as I am) who doesn’t require much in the way of plot. Sure, a lot of stuff happens in Ether, but it’s unclear why. The stranger tries to throttle a prostitute in a bar, and gets 86’d for his trouble. Two young women survive a car accident and then discover pleasure in each other’s touch. A young kid discovers a trampoline in the woods, and then gets really upset when it disappears. These events trigger other events, but I wouldn’t call it a plot, exactly.
Like The Walking Dead, Ether is a post-apocalyptic story with a further apocalypse lurking within its pages. Like American Horror Story, it’s a beautifully rendered mystery that probably isn’t going to be solved. I love Ben Ehrenreich – in fact, I love that there are Ben Ehrenreichs in the world – and I’m really looking forward to meandering further into his strange world with whatever he writes next.