by James Pate on May.23, 2014
Of the twenty or so books I picked up at AWP this year, Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud is one of my favorites. I’m not usually a big fan of novels/poems/stories about drug addiction. For every Naked Lunch and Jesus’ Son and A Child’s Life and Other Stories, there seems to be plenty of works based on the redemption narrative. An addict goes through shit, hits a series of bottoms, and eventually makes their way to at least a fraction of light. For people dealing with addiction, I can see why such narratives are wanted, even needed. I don’t think there’s any doubt they can play a crucial role.
But with writers who downplay the redemptive model (like Gloeckner, Johnson) or don’t use it at all (Burroughs) the addiction becomes (to use a phrase Johannes and Lucas have discussed in various posts) a sort of ambience, an aspect of the aesthetic landscape. The Christian mythos of darkness leading into light is taken out, or at least made less of a factor. We’re left with works that instead become like recording devises, Warholian cameras, where everyday life in all its fucked-upness plays out in its own haphazard, digressive way.
Escoria’s book is very much in that later mode. Characters move through the years, get sober and then dramatically non-sober, age, think back on their childhood, their adolescence. The last story, “Trouble and Troubledness,” has a sentence implying the speaker does eventually get sober, but the struggle is left out. And this is also only one character. Though every story is told in the first person, or close second person, the individuals are different — or so they seem, since their personal histories can appear so contrasting. We never know if the others escape from their situations or not.
To me, these stories seem less about drug addiction than existential pang, a keen sense of isolation reinforced by the use of the first person, so that every story seems as if it were being told to a stranger, or to the narrator’s own self in a dark room. Because of this, some of the most luminous moments in the stories are some of the most seemingly low-key. In “Reduction,” the narrator says, “I spent the days after the appointment staring through the bedroom window, out at our view of the alley. Sometimes the haze would turn the sky scarlet at sunset and the birds would perch on the power lines in blackened silhouettes, but usually I must admit that I was staring at nothing at all.” (The addition of “I must admit” here — which implies a break in time, that these are events truly in the past — is an example of how precise Escoria’s prose is through the book.)
Black Cloud made me think of Bolaño’s troubled, isolated narrators, especially the one in Antwerp and those in Last Evenings on Earth. Like those characters, Escoria’s narrators lack self-pity despite their circumstances, and they talk with a calm assurance, not so much telling stories as simply describing moments in their life. Also, Mary Gaitskill, especially Veronica. Like Gaitskill, Escoria can write about parties and drug taking and twisted relationships without it ever seeming clichéd, or done for shock value. These aren’t bloodless ciphers: her narrators have a fevered, beating pulse as they move through these worlds. As the narrator says in “Mental Illness on a Weekday,” “As explosive as I feel, it is nice, too, because I feel like I’m holding a secret. I will sit here and brace myself, my knuckles white as my insides burn, and no one will know this fire.” The line also implies the fault-line that creates so much tension in the stories: the artful, calibrated prose paired with the explosive subject matter.
Anyway, this is a great book. “Heroin Story” is one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. If you’re into Johnson or Gaitskill or Gloeckner, you’ll love this collection. (Side note: the author has made several fascinating videos to go along with the book — they’re like music videos for the stories. They can be seen on Vimeo.)