Saturday, March 5, 2011

Dermaphoria

(2005) a novel by Craig Clevenger.

It has been referred to as puzzle-fiction or transgressive fiction. Classification seems to be a major function of criticism. Phylum, genus and species. I suppose it has its uses.

The novel had been on my list for sometime and I despaired of finding it. I had high hopes for The Contortionist's Handbook also by Clevenger and these were largely fulfilled by Dermaphoria. The novel in trade paperback is 241 pages. I remember approaching page 140 with some trepidation (I would be two-thirds of the way through and I have a pathologic tendency to become disenchanted with novels - and movies - at about this point). Clevenger managed to sustain the mirage all the way to the end.

It is about a designer of illegal drugs who samples his own product.

I will view the novel from three perspectives: the storyline, the manner of its telling and the prose. I shall try to do this without giving too much away since it was constructed to hold the reader all the way up to the last line of the last chapter.

"What about character and setting? A novel needs engaging characters and a setting that resonates with the story."

True on both counts. Dermaporia is told in first person and Clevenger has managed to make the protagonist engaging. He did this by the usual method, namely by what the character says and does. Is there something new that we can learn about characterization from this novel? Not really, so I find no reason to dwell on it.

"Okay, how about setting?"

Clevenger does make use of his settings in Dermaphoria; he is not heedless of them. There are many changes of setting and it is this change which contributes to the atmosphere of the novel. It has become part of the manner of telling.

The storyline: Eric Ashworth, our designer of illegal drugs, finds himself injured and in custody, but without memory. The story follows Eric's attempts to recover his memory for his attorney, the police, his employer and for himself. True, this kind of thing has been done (haven't they all), but Clevenger has a good variation here.

The manner of telling (such a clumsy phrase): Amnesia lends itself to a nonlinear telling and when done deftly, can avoid a problem depressingly common to novels and movies. With some determination on our part, we can parse most novels into the setup, the climax, and the anti-climax, the climax occurring two-thirds to three quarters of the way through. The fundamental problem is that everything after the climax is...well...anticlimactic. The obvious solution is to save the climax for the last word of the last line of the last chapter, i.e., eliminate anticlimax. But there is a problem:  consequences and other loose ends.  Readers do not like loose ends. Once we have learned that climactic thing, whatever it may be, characters think differently, villains are caught, life changes. Clevenger has managed to construct his tale to essentially finish at the climax with no (or few) loose ends. Rather well done I must say.

And, lastly, the prose. The prose is very clean, with few redundancies and actually has a minimalist feel to it, but Clevenger makes very extensive use of metaphor and simile. Clevenger needs the protagonist to convincingly describe his drug addled state (remember, it is a first person account) and so all of this 'flash' works beautifully. The first paragraph is a good example:

     I panicked and swallowed a handful of fireflies and black widows the inferno had not. Shiny glass teardrops shattered beneath my teeth while the fireflies popped like Christmas bulbs until I coughed up blood and blue sparks, starting another fire three inches behind my eyes and burning a hole through the floor of my memory. A lifetime of days, years, minutes and months, gone, but for a lone scrap, scorched and snagged on a frayed nerve ending and snapping in the breeze:
     Desiree.

Clevenger needs the prose to conceal (camouflage might be a better word) as much as it reveals and to do so in sympathy with the story. He pulls it off (mostly) for 241 pages.  

There are some weaker spots and stock characters, but overall quite a success.

I have only one substantial criticism. There are some books that I cannot put down; I feel compelled to keep reading and if I am interrupted, I try to get back to it as soon as possible. Not this book. I could put it down at any time, no problem. I could leave it for days and then decide to pick it back up.  I would say off hand that this indicates a lack of dramatic tension. I attribute this to dilution; the book is forty or fifty pages too long. This slows the pace and dissipates tension. Judicious cuts would have improved things, but I suspect publishers demand (perhaps an unspoken demand) page count and authors comply consciously or unconsciously.

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