Review of Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu and Amber Dawn’s Sodom Road Exit

by Emilie Kneifel

Emilie Kneifel writes a monthly column about infatuation at Flypaper, and Emilie’s poetry, criticism, translations, and illustrations have or will appear in Adroit, BARNHOUSE, carte blanche, Vallum, Empty Mirror, and other empty mirrors.

The Tiger Flu
Larissa Lai
Arsenal Pulp Press
2018, 334 pp., $19.95

Sodom Road Exit
Amber Dawn
Arsenal Pulp Press
2018, 408 pp., $21.95

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai and Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn are novels tangled up in old worlds—worlds that the characters have to leave; that are still writhing inside of them; that they return to, shifting, never having fit. Both books were nominated for a Lambda in Lesbian Fiction, an award that The Tiger Flu won. But while both books are concerned with the challenge of interconnection amidst decay, the people of The Tiger Flu—even lovers, even sisters—seem to gesture towards each other only superficially. Sodom Road Exit’s characters, however scribbled and sometimes half-formed their psyches may be, still manage to interweave and overlap.

Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu (Arsenal Pulp Press) begins with its characters fleeing as the world around them disintegrates. A village of clone women, the Grist Sisters, “with crow black hair, autumn leaf skin and short legs,” is demolished just outside Salt Water City, the very place that created and subsequently exiled them. Against a background of flu-ridden men, sick for reasons that remain mostly indistinct in the detritus of chaos, two characters find each other: Kora Ko, a 15-year-old sent to live at an all girls’ school under mysterious circumstances, and Kirilow Groundsel, a Grist doctor who clambers from the wreckage of the village in hopes of finding a starfish—the kind of sister who can regrow amputated body parts. They trail each one other, holding hands loosely, hoping to outlive this version of the world, as they are clouded by holograms of the maybe-dead and the maybe-living.

The Tiger Flu’s world, all sharp glints in the dark, is alive. Descriptions interlace symbiotically with the environment: a person’s face turns “red as a turkey vulture’s” that has just been spotted scavenging; doubt “seeps like the draft” in the room. When Kora screams:

She becomes … the decade past and the decade prior to that, the trial of tiger flu in reverse … the emergence of the quarantine rings, the first epidemic, the tiger wine craze, the end of oil, the launch of Chang and Eng, the expulsion of the Grist Sisters, … the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, … the Opium War, the fall of the Ming dynasty … the scream of her long history.

Her body, her sound, is made up of all these flashes of moving time. We are grounded again and again in the larger environment: the cascading loop of the earth.

The Tiger Flu’s panoramas are densely perceptual, even cinematic. But its scenes miss what the actors might have filled in: winks and nods and pushing hair out of faces; tenderness, in other words, or any kind of human familiarity. Lai’s blocks of dialogue, aggressive back-and-forths, are visually steep, with little to no stage direction or respite for the reader’s eye. Especially frustrating is that so many of them end with an easy release, a give way looser than actual interpersonal friction. A border-crossing confrontation ends with a secondary character neatly agreeing to return home in exchange for the rest of the group’s passage. “I’m not averse to coming home, you know,” she says, “I never was,” undercutting the moment’s already dubious stakes.

The lushness engulfs the microcosm of the interpersonal. None of these people seem to know each other at all.

Maybe we are catching the characters at a time of mere survival, when there is simply “nothing to talk about. … we have to leave.” Maybe any idyll prior to this book’s setting, where idle conversation between characters was possible, is as elusive to the reader as our own world, referred to as “The Time Before,” is to the characters. But their sharp dialogue, their sneering just past one another, teeters artificially on top of the plot—the opposite of their bodies’ blending into the environment. The lushness engulfs the microcosm of the interpersonal. None of these people seem to know each other at all.

There is one moment of aching, when Kora sees her dead mother, possibly alive again. Her absent presence glimmers. “‘Mom?’ she whispers. The presence pats her leg.”

The Tiger Flu’s queer elements are not immune to Lai’s difficulty relating people to anything but flora and fauna and enormous histories. Lovers are pasted next to each other; their devotion feels prescribed. The book also has a strange—and frankly outdated—fixation on binary male and female energies, most obviously symbolized in Chang and Eng, two looming orb-satellites. Chang, who is given she/her pronouns, is “self-effacing;” Eng, with he/him pronouns: “bloated, angry, sick.”

This is precisely where Sodom Road Exit (Arsenal Pulp Press) is most powerful: the textbook queer way it clusters a family out of circumstance. Starla, a 20-something university dropout, humid-sticky with self-loathing—“How long has it been since I told myself I hate myself?”—stumbles back to her hometown, a place bleached blonde and pink from its heyday as a summer amusement park. Back in her single mother’s trailer, she traces the tormented X’s scrawled up the wall of her childhood bedroom, and it becomes apparent that this ingrown self-horror comes from unknowable depths, from surviving her mother’s abusive boyfriends in any scrambling way she could.

Her history has left her with a chaotically curious bent, an apathetic self-destructiveness that finds her, at one point, dissociating underwater in goopy Lake Erie, dragged down by a black sequined dress worn just for the occasion. Thinking, “Now I need to find a new dress to wear to my funeral.” Her abandon makes her the ideal target for the infatuation of a ghost, Etta, who propels Starla to gather relics from the amusement park, each of which strengthens Etta’s power exponentially. But being possessed is nothing new to Starla. As she digs into herself, telling herself, “I will black out, I am cursed, I deserve this,” she becomes “as diaphanous as lace drapes, easy to tear into. Etta steps into [her] like a dress.”

… whether she’s driven by passion or malice or just petty meddling—here that seems to be part of the point: that possession and its haunting happen for no good reason, but we look for and find the meaning ourselves.

Starla is sometimes too quick for her own good, occasionally explaining herself through negation. She overhears “a language that sounds a lot like Italian except I don’t understand a word,” before establishing that she speaks it. She finds her mother’s home tidier than it ever used to be—even the empty bottles are lined up. But lost in the twists of her own convoluted psyche, Starla also easily forgets to clarify what is going on. Old resentment for her mother, when uncontextualized at first, is rendered illegible. And on the occasion of Etta using her nascent power for the first time, Starla watches as “the unthinkable floats” for a page and a half before naming it for what it is: a stuffed Care Bear that Etta holds up in the air. As she wanders after her thoughts, Starla sometimes drops stories with a you-know-how-it-is flippancy, even when the overwhelming feeling is no, we don’t.

Though what Etta wants exactly remains unclear too—whether she’s driven by passion or malice or just petty meddling—here that seems to be part of the point: that possession and its haunting happen for no good reason, but we look for and find the meaning ourselves. When the townspeople find out about Etta’s apparitions, their flurried congregations make it clear that, just like Starla, they are all a little lost. “They are desperate for the reverberation … They want any feeling that they themselves don’t have to evoke.” So they find it anywhere.

Starla finds a job working the graveyard shift on a campground, where she does rounds for a smattering of permanent residents. An unlikely amalgam, they circle each other at first like the wild things they are. But soon they settle into a circle of folding chairs, into the quiet redemption of company, and they protect each other in ways they never were. Starla holds her friend’s child and imagines whisking him “someplace that isn’t marked with sadness, but where?” And she can finally say “I am being hurt” because she is asked—insistently, lovingly, by a friend. Early in Sodom Road Exit, Starla explains to her maybe-new-girlfriend that “A Woman Under the Influence” is her favourite movie because she likes to think that she could “lose control, rant and yell, like the leading lady…and someone would still love me.” And they do, a whole room of them. They’re still running from something, but they’re running in place. Their circle is closed, however imperfectly traced. This; this is what saves her.

The Tiger Flu is all world, the meat of its people spooned out like lobster shells. When they move, they pull the rest of the environment with them. They are the environment; there is only environment. As craggy as Sodom Road Exit can be, its tiny triumphs lie in its affinity for the interpersonal. Its story, a hunk of life, a cluster of porch lights from afar, ends without ending. Which resolves Starla’s easy mistake: that her life has halted even as it continues. Life for the living is sticky, smelly; there’s cigarette ash in the beer. She knows that. They all know. They don’t have to explain it to each other. So they settle, all quiet. They sit.


Emilie Kneifel

 


Emilie Kneifel writes a monthly column about infatuation at Flypaper, and Emilie’s poetry, criticism, translations, and illustrations have or will appear in Adroit, BARNHOUSE, carte blanche, Vallum, Empty Mirror, and other empty mirrors.

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