Excerpt from current NaNoWriMo
An apology: excuse the title pun.
Reading a book for review can be very different than reading it for fun. This isn’t to say that reading books that one intends to review isn’t enjoyable, but there is a kind of mental awareness one has to keep while reading in order to review the book well and fairly. But every once in a while, a book comes along that sweeps that mental blockade away and forces the reviewer to enjoy it for what it is: a riveting novel. Lightless by C. A. Higgins (out today) was one of these books. I tried and failed to make sufficient notes in the margins as I read (looking back at the advance reader copy, there aren’t any past page fifty or so), and I walked around my apartment with my nose stuck in it when I should have been doing other things such as, you know, working.
Lightless features a very small cast of characters, which makes it feel incredibly intimate, as if you’re climbing into a box with them. You are, in a way, as the entire book takes place in an enclosure, a spaceship named Ananke, whose power comes from a fascinating source which is hinted at throughout the book (partly through the section titles which name and define the laws of thermodynamics), but that power source isn’t revealed until later on, and certainly won’t be spoiled here.
The character we start with, and whose movements guide us through the novel, is Althea, the ship’s technician and mechanic, the woman who created and coded the ship’s interfaces and built her inner workings from the ground up (the ship is always referred to as her, just like a ship at sea). At the start of the novel, Althea detects that there are intruders on the Ananke and she and the captain, Domitian, catch two men who managed to sneak onto the ship, landing in the docking bay and boarding without the ship sounding any alert. The two men are put in separate rooms for interrogation, though one manages to escape; the other, Ivanov, is charming and glib, and he is also the one who knows what buttons to press in Althea to get her to exhibit any emotion – most of the time, she is as stoic as her ship is, breaking the trope that the only woman in a small crew must be its emotional center. If anything, the ship is more emotional and fussy than Althea is; the Ananke begins to malfunction for mysterious reasons and Althea has to wrestle with her to keep her quiet.
In the world of Lightless there is a Big Brother-like System which is all-powerful and all-knowing, or so it claims. The Ananke is a System ship, and her crew are loyal to the System and the order it keeps in the intergalactic futuristic universe the novel takes place in. Like any despotic government, there are rebellions that arise and are quashed, destroying whole planets at times, but there are also small terrorist cells which gnaw at the System’s hindquarters, providing enough of a pain in the ass to put themselves on the System’s radar. The intruders at the novel’s start are believed to be part of one particular terrorist organization, and a System interrogator, Ida Stays, is dispatched to the ship to get the necessary information out of Ivanov, as she arrives too late to interview his escaped colleague.
Beyond this point, plot synopsis will begin to include spoilers. Suffice to say that there is a continuous evolution that takes place in Lightless, whether it is characters’ motives, plot points that bloom out of one another in neat synchronicity, or the realization that the book is in some ways a locked-door mystery.
C. A. Higgins is a debut novelist, and she has the gumption and the skill to dump us unceremoniously right into the middle of the world she’s very clearly labored over and built. She trusts her readers to follow along, and they will; she doesn’t make it hard to understand where the plot is set or who its main characters are, but she also refuses to give unnecessary exposition, to describe to us a long, long time in the future, in a galaxy far, far away. This is one of the best things about Lightless – the fact that its world is expertly established through scenes and storytelling. There are stories within stories in this novel, as Ivanov is interrogated, as Althea is asked prying questions, and as the Ananke herself develops strange malfunctions that seem to be attempts at communication. That all this works so flawlessly and without confusion is admirable in a first book.
When I first read Lightless, I had no idea that I would be lucky enough to speak to C. A. Higgins and interview her for my podcast, The Other Stories. Eventually, though, I did, and so tomorrow, Wednesday, September 30th, I will be linking the marvelous interview with the articulate, thoughtful, and intelligent author here. Please do tune in – she is well worth listening to.
Why does she do this to herself? Her arms are so pretty so shiny and squeaky clean skin soft like lovers say and here she lies in a bed of roses or rose drops or blood drops in a bathtub or red ties on the metal rails of a hospital bed.
…Mom Dad Someone
We’re right here, darling.
Yes, can’t you see us?
I can see I don’t know what I’m seeing where am I how and why am I tied I don’t like
You tried to do it again, sweetheart.
How this time
The same as usual.
And she starts to laugh, the maniacal laughter that comes from being found freshly alive in a heapful of bodies, all the ones that live in her head, all with her face on them. But none of the others go the way she can, they’re all mangled or strangled or squashed against concrete or cartop or poisoned with malaise and arsenic but she, the one found alive no matter how far she burrows down into the heap is the only one who can’t get it right, too enamored with the process to let it go all the way.
Have I been here long
No, hon, only a couple of days. I miss you, though.
Are you sleeping with her already
No! Why would I do that? I love you. Only you.
You won’t not for long trust me
Yes, I will.
She will heal again, one sealed stitch at a time, a rag doll more than anything, dragging on everyone’s nerves, grating their elephantine skin and peeling their waxen faces and breaking them until they’ve broken her to fix her and put her back together again like a watch without a face and only the hands moving correctly, finally, until the next time someone, her most likely but sometimes someone else, accidentally or on purpose reaches into the clock and wrenches the hands up and out and breaks them, or twists them the wrong way until the time is all gone and out of shape.
Hello is anyone there
I knew you’d leave all of you proved you right didn’t I
Oh there you are you just don’t want to talk because you’re crying
The last one lasted longer than you you’re leaving now aren’t you
And she will still heal again, and it won’t matter how many times she is broken and picks herself up again, or gets picked up again, or has the crows pick her clean as carrion again, she will always go back to the old scars, she doesn’t pick new ones, it’s been long enough that she has her favorite places where things open again and open so well and so tasty, the blood melts in her mouth like curry, pudding, chocolate cake with candles in it. Burning the roof of her mouth. Scorching her until she laughs again for no good reason other than the swallowed cigarette trick she remembers from an old black and white movie and always imagined must have felt like this.
Good morning. How are you feeling?
Cat got your tongue?
Oh, I see. Yes, I see. That’ll definitely sting for a few days. But it’ll heal. The mouth is the fastest part of our bodies to heal, did you know that?
It’s because of all the blood vessels there. The mouth is very resilient.
Better you try not to speak until it heals, sugar. The doctor will come later and see if we can remove these ties, okay?
Good girl. Or woman, I should say, shouldn’t I? Forty-six, you’re as old as my oldest daughter.
That’s right. Just buzz if you need water or anything. It’ll heal fast, I promise.
“Ma, come out of the shower.”
“Ma. Ma, come on.”
Melanie stands outside the bathroom door, practicing the now nightly ritual in which her mother locks herself in the bathroom, gets in the shower with at least some of her garments still on, and refuses to come out. There is only one bathroom in the small house, and the closest neighbors are over five miles away.
In retrospect, Melanie thinks she should have had her mother move to Atlanta with her rather than moving back to her childhood home, which used to be a farm but is now a small house with acres of land rented out to corporate growers. Where a stable once stood, there is now a rotting semblance of a building where termites, the exterminator told her, were impossible to get out now. All he could do was protect the house from their spread. Which was something, at least, Melanie thought, hoping that the extra favors she’d given him helped to make sure that he did the job right.
A girl could get mighty lonely living with her possibly senile, maybe paranoid, and most definitely difficult mother for over a year.
“Ma, I need to pee.”
“No! They’re coming to get me, don’t you get it?” This is hissed now, as Melanie’s mother moves from her obstinate stance to one that had a reasoning, whether invented or truly believed.
“No one is coming for you.”
Melanie sighs and walks away from the bathroom towards her childhood bedroom.
“Don’t leave me!” The cry echoes after her, but Melanie knows that if she were to rush back to the door, her mother would revert to nay-saying.
In her room, covered with posters of irrelevant and broken up boy-bands, models, and basketball players that Melanie didn’t bother to take down when she first moved in, she picks up the paperclip she’s been using for the last few nights.
“I’m here again, Ma,” she says, back at the door, on her knees in front of the doorknob.
“Go away! Let them find me! Save yourself, baby!” The cliches came fast and automatic, echoes of movies Melanie and her mother had watched over and over again, years ago. This is her mother’s grand performance, the role of a lifetime played by a woman who’d never wanted to be an actress. All she’d wanted to be was a rodeo rider, but that was only for boys when she was a girl, so she became a factory worker instead, and then a homemaker, and then an sort of Jill-of-all-trades when it came to anything involving a needle and thread. She altered wedding dresses, made baby clothing out of hand-me-down big brother rags, patched together old family quilts, and hid teenagers unwanted pregnancies for as long as she could by letting out hemlines and creating collage shirts that seemed like the height of alternative fashion, clashing patterns purposefully loud so as to distract from the bump of a belly under them.
There hasn’t been a needle in the house since Melanie moved in, soon after her mother tried to commit suicide with them, a process so ridiculous that Melanie almost started to laugh when she saw the doctor’s photos of her mother looking like she’d been to the acupuncturist and gotten up and wandered home before the treatment was over.
“Ma, I’m coming in now.” Melanie begins to pick the lock, deciding that tonight she will finally unscrew the doorknob and make the door unlockable for once and for all.
But her paperclip isn’t working. Or then again, it is working, she can hear and feel the lock moving but she still can’t open the door. “What have you done now?” she yells through the door.
“I’m only protecting myself, Mel! You of all people should understand that!”
Melanie regrets now more than ever having confessed her rape to her mother. It didn’t heal her, and it’s only given her mother more bizarre ammunition to use against her now. Melanie moves to the living room and then the kitchen and finds what she’s looking for – an absence. A chair missing. Her mother has used the old chair-under-the-doorknob thing. Melanie has always thought that this only works in movies, but as her mother is putting on a Raspberry-worthy performance at the moment, she assumes that her life is simply like this now. Melanie is nothing if not a realist.
“Ma?” Back at the door, she tries again. “Ma!”
“No!” It’s a screech.
“Okay, Ma, I’m going to go pee outside and then I’m going to bed without brushing my teeth.” Melanie walks to the front door and as she opens it she hears behind her the opening of the bathroom door.
Her mother, underwear soaking and her bra undone in the back but still dangling on its straps around her shoulders, stands in the doorway.
“Don’t be silly, Mel,” she says. “You can’t go to bed without brushing your teeth.” She traipses along the hallway to her bedroom and lies on top of the bedspread and stares at the ceiling. Melanie watches her for a moment and then goes back to the bathroom where the shower is still running. She shuts the water off, pees, brushes her teeth, and then returns to her mother’s room. She will dry her, dress her, and give her the medication she is still getting used to. She will put her to bed and kiss her goodnight. And then, as she does only every so often, Melanie will put on boxer shorts and a tank top and she’ll crawl into her mother’s bed and lie there, awake, listening to her mother breathing, snoring, dreaming. And Melanie will pretend that she is six, and that her mother’s snores help to put her asleep. And she will pretend that there will be cereal and chocolate milk in the morning and a yellow school bus stopping a mile down the road to take her to school. And she will remember her mother waking her up and telling her she sleepwalked into her big grownup bed again, and herself pretending that she did indeed, and that it wasn’t on purpose.
When I know that they… And I know that I… There is a space in between where something happens and… But what if the shoe was on the other hand, tied tight with a sock puppet buried inside, casketed? Some things are best left unexplained, unexamined, unreliable, unrefined, underwater, undefined.
So when they… And I… And we together… And if only they wouldn’t… If only I couldn’t… There is a space in between where nothing needs to happen but… And what if the sock was in the laundry hamper, with a pair of jeans with tissue inside a pocket, and the washer/dryer at the laundromat covered all your shirts with white puffballs? Nothing would be clean, holy, sanctified, refined, defined, examined, but it would be explained: tissue in your jeans’ pocket.
And where do you… and they… How do we all… Doing things isn’t as hard as the space between where nothing happens and nothing proceeds and movement is restricted to peripheral limbs only, creating a vacuum of the face, an inability to speak or hear or see the evil, if it is evil, or the good, if it is good, or the grey, the in between, which most things are.
When you know that I… And that they… Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t I be working on things other than midnight lyrics and fortune cookie lines running through my head at a speed too fast to keep track of? So when my coffee gets… And I want to… Because there’s more but not enough… What then? What do I do then?
In the morning afterlight, the spaces in between come close together, the light drains out the Dark Matter, and a face as light as air and heavy as a stone is yours or theirs and… But maybe… Because… And after all… You understand me, don’t you?
Don’t word things at me, hurl them if you must but don’t be delicate. Remember I am not a poet. I am a straightforward mess of a manchild and my expressions are few and far between. So if… And I know that if also… Am I here with you or am I alone? Where are the spaces in between where I found you?
Because… And here I’m being serious, take my words for it, because what if… And that actually… And you aren’t… And I’m not… But what about them? And my jeans? And where is my coffee and my running shoes and sock puppet? Where are my underwear and where is my jersey, where are my shorts and where are my headphones. I’m going out to… I’ll be back when…
No, I won’t have a heart attack. Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be home for dinner.
1. She never listened to her father’s absence of breath.
2. She never said No when it really mattered.
3. She never said Yes when it didn’t.
4. She never watched her mother cry in the mornings.
5. She never learned how to prevent everyone else’s pain.
6. She never learned how to prevent her own.
7. She never dove in headfirst knowing what was waiting on the other side.
8. She never clarified the terms of her contract.
9. She never bothered to create legally binding contracts for her clients.
10. She never paid her taxes without someone else’s help.
11. She never corrected her own grammar if she thought she could get away with it.
12. She never became a ballerina.
13. Or an actress.
14. Or a dishwasher.
15. She never stopped loving anyone.
16. She never liked someone in the same way as they liked her because she believed that it was a human impossibility to like and be equally liked in return.
17. She never learned how to hate.
18. She never learned how to avoid jealousy.
19. Or envy (which is different).
20. Or schadenfreude.
21. Or guilt.
22. She never learned how to horseback ride.
23. She never took a step off a twenty-five story high building.
24. She never shot herself full of things she wished she could, even for the story.
25. She never felt entirely sure.
“Put it in me already,” Nell says through the strap in her teeth. I tease her, waving it slowly in front of her, the beautiful gold needle that has a ring to one side for one’s thumb, to keep it steady, a ring which is almost an exact replica of those surrounding our fingers.
“We’re celebrating today, remember?” I say. She nods vigorously, her veins popping out, her head pulling back to pull the pure leather belt around her upper arm even tighter. I’m worried she’ll end up cutting off her bloodstream entirely. “Calm down.” It’s a command, not a request, and she lets the strap loosen just enough. “Good. Good girl.”
She moans, and her eyes are brimming with tears, which she learned to bring on artificially in some acting class in college, but it convinces me and I finally put the needle to her vein, slip it under the skin and draw back, see the blood, no air bubbles, and push back, plunging all the way down, all the way into her. She lets the strap loose, or it falls out of her mouth, and her eyes roll up to the ceiling and she smiles lazily before even that amount of work is too much for muscles and her face goes slack. I pick her up – I’m taller and stronger than her, always have been, they call me the butch, even though they don’t know what a top she is in the bedroom – and lay her down on the couch.
I watch her, ignoring her occasional mumbles about things we need to remember to do, or things she wants me to do to her now. She’s not gone to the world, not entirely, but she is in the land of cotton wool lightness and lying down keeps her safe. Plenty of people walk around like this, but Nell and I have never understood how it’s possible.
My phone buzzes on the coffee table and I pick it up. It’s one of my clients. I automatically begin to pace.
“Hello, Tonya, how are you?”
She tells me how she is and begins to ask about her portfolio, about what I’ve done with her investments this week. She’s not seeing the rise she wants to see.
“Tonya, darling, don’t you trust me? I would never steer you wrong. I can tell you that the two new companies are going places, you just need to wait until the end of the week, you’ll see – they have something new up their sleeve is my guess because they’ve been throwing a lot of hints out there.”
She continues to complain and I sit back down on the coffee table and only listen with half an ear. I watch Nell, smiling again sometimes, her eyes opening and closing slowly, an air bubble popping through her lips and making her simulate a giggle though no sound comes out. I reassure Tonya, finally, and tell her I’ll call her on Friday. I need to stop giving clients my cell number, I remind myself, but they need it, unfortunately. I’m extraordinary at what I do – otherwise how could Nell and I afford this place, this syringe, the clean as fuck dope – and people who make money off of me are paying commissions up the wazoo so I better be available to wipe their ass if need be.
There is only one day I don’t answer the phone, and that’s the day when Nell does it to me. We take turns, once a week her, once a week me. We’re careful. We love it. We still go to meetings, and fake our way through chip after chip. Every one we get we bore a hole into and string it on this long ribbon that we hang on our balcony. It rattles, our personal version of wind chimes.
We like the meetings, the validation, the friends we’ve made, the comradery. And we feel fine.
Once a week for each of us. That’s it. That’s nothing. And it doesn’t count because we monitor one another. We’ll never hit bottom again. Bottom wasn’t fun, and we’re both happy to be here, up top. Nell’s massage business is booming and I’m back on Wall Street like nothing ever happened. So what if I met Nell at rehab. So what if you’re not supposed to date there, or in your first year after. It’s okay. We both talk to our sponsors about it. You don’t run away from the love of your life when you encounter her, no matter where you both are.
Nell raises her head a few hours later. I’m curled up at the other end of the couch with a book, playing with the syringe between my fingers. I’ve always had restless hands. “More?” she asks. I smile, and go and get the rest of the kit. What’s one more time in one day? Still nothing.