– from The Vicious Red Relic, Love
There are people like me who follow one animated, gluttonous moment of emotional experience to the next in total anticipation and ecstatic fervor. Rolling our tongues and pawing at the door with melted acrylic talons. Total fandom found in the exquisite rapture received via all forms of stories, triple-bound puzzle pieces pressed into our skin ‘til it puckers and marks. We are gauchely overly thankful, always looking to add one more jewel in a beguiling ancient crown, clamoring at the outskirts of that literary valley in hopes of pining our way back in.
Anna Joy Springer’s The Vicious Red Relic, Love is a gnarly siren song of a book for those so ambitiously thankful. Categorized as a fabulist memoir, the book unfolds by way of diary entries, scrawled school lecture notes, shit-smeared dollhouse worlds called “metaforests ” (The Forest of Despots’ Daughters, The Forest of Myth and Stink, and The Forest of Molestation Cliches among them), Synopology (brainchild of an Enron Scabbard) cult literature, collaged drawings, and a tiny tinfoil elephant named Blinky.
All of these forms are woven into the story of our narrator Nina, a curious, smart student and sex worker in ‘90s-era San Francisco who is elbow-deep in desire, identity politics and constantly shifting realities. We are presented with a meticulously built, multi-faceted re-telling of Nina’s relationship with [Gil], a smart, shifty and frightening addict and cult survivor who hid her HIV-positive status from Nina. “I’d never met someone so smart or tough or funny,” she writes of [Gil], “[a]n expert of Tom Waits lyrics and an accompanying hippity-hoppity one foot to the other Rumpelstilskin dance, she played the magical creature, estranged.”
A careful, furrowed re-telling of the Epic of Gilgamesh is used to question, invert, and sanctify the “perfect buddy myth,” all guilt and fear and bravery and no absolutes, lust tied inextricably to bloated, sun-warped memories and goddess worship. There is a bawdy and perverse humor in abundance (“There’s Andrea Dworkin swapping sap with Larry Flynt”) slicking the whole with a winking copper eye; there are invocations of foreboding so spooky (“a happy birthday party with a missing birthday girl”) it will make your stomach ache like your throat right before crying.
Such combinations make up the romance novels of freaked and passion-crazed humans, rising to meet us with a tender generosity. I cannot write enough of the generosity of this book – where it stealthily leads your thoughts, and how it trusts them to move serpentine through dank, endless tunnels. This book knows that you are brave.
I want to say that I consider it good luck that my spellcheck tried to turn “Synopolgy” into “gynecology.” Despite this, I find The Vicious Red Relic, Love to be much more useful to my personal feminist literature canon than Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology.
Writing this account of The Vicious Red Relic, Love makes me want to write “Dear Diaries” about my entire universe of beloved artifacts, an integrated, fully-fleshed unity of every conjured feeling under my own clammy sun. When I think of writers that have taught me about the extreme sanctity of love – Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Bertha Harris, and now Anna Joy Springer – I imagine their particular arrangement of words bundled up on some plane in the literary ether, talking shit about the complexity of lust and caring and fear, total empathy and resilience despite being basically annihilated, in some way, in spite of, remaining absolutely sure of love.
I have spent time worried sick that I will not write this right, and you will not be moved to read this book, which is the worst thing that could happen:
The Vicious Red Relic, Love is a razor-sharply petaled, rusted-out glory hole with an interior lined in soft, rotten blood-stained silk. I cannot think of anyone who describes fucking, in its full-spectrum-swing from total-magic-pervert-transformation to hazily cornered loneliness, in a more honest and holy vision than Springer:
“Sex had started feeling like being lonely in a crowd of drunks, then pissed on from a balcony. And even that was an accident…
But then I found [Gil]. After we kissed- her mouth pulling my lips like they were nipples – after she pushed me open so wide I bled a smeary ring around her wrist, after I hiccuped sobs and dug trails in the paint on her wall and slammed my fists down against her back, and after I felt like a muscular black-winged horse had flown out from between my thighs then burst open like a star, after she held my shuddering, transformed body, she told me I was hers.”
In anticipation of this book I actually dreamed of it. While I slept, it appeared to me as an object I moved towards in sleeplandia knowing it couldn’t actually be there: it was too badly wanted to be right there in front of me like it was any old thing, ta-da! I woke up disappointed, empty-handed, because I knew that waiting in that book there would be lines like this to move in slicing urgency through my brain:
For there is so much here of being both decidedly female and femme, both contending with and shifting it inside you until it either fits, or finds a fitful home. Anyone who has worn a rayon 1940s dress knows that they are always “torn at the armpits like all of my dresses.” When Springer describes buying her first strap-on and harness it is the dykey, lascivious answer to Judy Blume’s ’70s menstrual belts. The body’s every piss, fart, cum and squirt is ritualistically summoned – there is nothing of safe-guarding a suspended purity of the body. While traveling through this book you are pushed up against your own associations, histories, fetishes and changeable selfhoods, all splattered around in your impure vessel with several braided narratives working together as a careful and slutty survival guide. A constant spilling over and re-entering, but with a winking, shredded boundary that encourages you to make your own sneaky connections. Springer is nothing if not wildly skillful at building a story which tells you both, and oftentimes equally, of itself and its reader. There are even tiny black and white notes for you hidden in the forests on the page, road-stop reminders to swing the story back into yourself and stay present.
The best I can say of a book is that once read, it will live perfectly inside you forever, and that this circumstance allows you to feel more intimately a part of the world. The Vicious Red Relic, Love is that kind of book, an act and product borne of great, imperfect love. After reading it I feel more than ever like a living creature, and my pleasure in that living gives an ever-steadier glow than before.
Gina Abelkop lives in Berkeley, CA and runs Birds of Lace, a feminist press. Her first book of poems, Darling Beastlettes, is forthcoming from Apostrophe Books.