He lost me at:
St. Louis is a city entirely suburban, constructed and unnatural. Almost foreign after so many years in New York, and yet unmistakeably American. St. Louis is like watching a commercial for fast food.
I lived in St. Louis for four years, and it’s not that what B.C. Edwards is saying is not true. The city is made up of a bunch of sprawling residential pockets, peppered with soul-killing national chains and all the political tightness and hatred we’ve come to associate with middle America. It’s the way Edwards says it that makes me sad: as if St. Louis doesn’t even deserve a second look. As if he’s content to see it as a foreign planet, a place to visit for a while, and learn, and then return to New York City.
Of course, it’s the character talking here. Eli, from Brooklyn, whose entire growth cycle in “Bigger Than All These Buildings” relies on this dismissiveness. He flies to STL for his boyfriend David’s family reunion and for the length of it he is on the outside looking in, spiking the Kool-Aid and staying an arm’s length away from David’s aunts and their crucifixes. But a cathartic fight between brothers occurs, and in the end Eli suggests a visit to the St. Louis arch, the mythical and defunct Gateway to the West. “And they’re right,” he says. “All of them. It’s really something.”
The line is a satisfying ending to the story, on one level: not only does he cave in to the sightseeing all his boyfriend’s folks have recommended to him, but he also praises it with the kind of down-home phraseage that they’d probably described it with in the first place. It feels good. It feels indicative of emotional change. But on another level—and that’s in light of the rest of the story—the line feels a little patronizing to me. David’s family is still more or less nuts up to the end of the story, and salvation comes only after he’s left the thick of them. It’s almost too good, the ending, and maybe that’s because in a couple days Eli is going home.
It’s the same tone I sensed in much of the first part of The Aversive Clause. In the world of “Aggie with the Hat On,” “the streets rolled by, strip malls, neighborhoods, fast food, and the same again.” Aggie descends into a pathetic, drug-addled mid-American lifestyle until he encounters a surreal doppelganger. Milo in “Goldfish” drifts in and out of consciousness at a party after sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Mattie and Zachs leave New York to rehab and turn over an old house and are forced to take on their own existential dilemmas when they find a giant iron statue of a cherry tree in the basement, left by the lonesome former resident.
I think Edwards knows what he’s doing here: a country kid that loiters outside Mattie and Zachs’ project asks,
“Why is there an ‘s’ on the end of your name, Zach?”
“We’re from New York,” Zachs didn’t mean that to be an answer, it just fell out of him.
Edwards is explicitly contrasting the country and the city—or maybe, the city and everything else—in the first part of his book. Even, in those stories that don’t involve travel, trying to delve into the squalor of strip malls and shitty jobs on their own terms. But the depiction of non-New York environs does not feel as sympathetic to me as it might be. Yes, the Midwest sucks, and suburbs suck, and the big-corporation infrastructure that runs our world drives us to a life of existential despair and addiction, but fiction’s job has always been to find the humanity in the things that most people shake their heads at. I get the sense that B.C. Edwards is trying to do this—there’s something about that line on the Arch that really clicks—but his central focus seems more to be the squalor and less how value is created in it. If the St. Louis Arch is beautiful (and it is), it’s become a little too late to say so.
That’s Part 1. Not that there are parts to The Aversive Clause, but it certainly feels like there are. In the first, you have the Brooklynite (author and/or character) who delves into the experience of “authentic” American communities, perceives alienation, and commences change. The second part, starting with “Spot” where a broke family man follows drops of blood on the way to a job interview in a dystopian New York, feels less gatherable. And that’s a good thing, in my opinion. The stories here feel less pained, more exultant and imaginative, more exploratory of humans’ way in the world than depressed by it.
For example: following “Spot” is “Sweetness,” an account of a man’s descent into a disease that has overcome much of the city and his lover’s conflicted response to it. The story originally appeared in the anthology Zombiality: A Queer Bent on the Undead and so is basically a zombie story. But underneath the bright lights of hunting parties and the slowly dawning sweet taste in the throat of the protagonist, you can’t help but feel that Edwards had Human Immunodeficiency Virus in mind: blood-borne, stigmatized, a tragic wedge between the lovers.
“Doppelgangers Local 525,” the next story, depicts a man working as a futuristic, spot-on impersonator in a city where the previously prominent workers unions have been subsumed by giant corporations. Gray Angelo Inchion has to reconcile the need to support his broken family with the directive death gurgles of his own union. The story could be cheesy, but it’s not. It’s almost as if the conflict at hand between labor and loyalty and the familial urge can only be communicated properly in a world as off-kilter as this one.
In the rest of the book, you’ve got angels possessing people like demons (“The Providence of Angels”). You’ve got a small man in a too-big skin suit (“Illfit”). You’ve got a couple living in a tree after an apocolypse that covered the world with water (“Evitative”). In “Eugene and the News,” probably my favorite story, a charmingly earnest boy goes out to intern with a news channel and watches entire encampments of reporters get devoured by a giant dinosaur in the desert. All of which is recounted in the boy’s letters to his mother, signed invariably, “Love to Dad, Eugene.”
It is possible that I am just a latent science fiction nerd after reading so much Orson Scott Card when I was a kid. But if I am, B.C. Edwards is too. He hits his stride on the dystopian, the otherworldy, the just-out-of-step-with-reality. Sometimes I feel this way about my own fiction: that the only way you can say the things you really want to say is by jumping out of the context you conceived those things in.
I think B.C. Edwards is like me, at least in that respect. When you try to look at the world head on, it seems ugly, and no one is pleased. But when you look at it out of the corner of your eye, or of your story’s eye, it becomes wild and interesting and full of wonder. Such is the benevolent power of alternate worlds: they can transform bitterness into insight. In The Aversive Clause, for me, those worlds are more real than the ones that claim to be our own.