Monday
Jun112012


Death Wishing

By Laura Ellen Scott


Ig Publishing
October 2011
978-1935439394

Reviewed by Marshall Yarbrough


 

Victor Swaim is no hermit, he's just a bit withdrawn. The protagonist and narrator of Laura Ellen Scott's Death Wishing is middle-aged, overweight, divorced. He's not an outcast, exactly, he's just been sort of nudged off to one side. The fringe he chooses to inhabit is the basement storefront his son Val owns in New Orleans's French Quarter, where Victor works mending vintage corsets and capes—his clients are accordingly peculiar. Whether it's Victor who has turned his back on society or the other way around, he has taken to his exile with equal parts resentment and relief.

In this respect, Victor resembles the city he calls home. Neither wholly a part of nor entirely separate from the greater U.S., New Orleans, as Scott portrays it, acts as a safe haven for Victor's sort: losers happy to be on their own, but still working through conflicted feelings towards the outside world. It's as if the city and its inhabitants have been granted their wish—to be left alone—and are now grappling with the effects, positive and negative.

They aren't the only ones. Scott's novel takes place in a world thrown into upheaval by the  phenomenon of "Death Wishing": the dying wishes of a handful of humans are being made reality, and the survivors are coping with the consequences. The wishes, and the changes they bring, are striking in their outlandishness; even more remarkable is the mundane routine the characters cling to as they adjust to each new change.

The novel opens in the aftermath of a new wish. "The night that cats were wished away was a hard one full of wine, tears, and spectacle," Victor tells us. Victor does not want for spectacle in his line of work. What's more, he is prone to his own fits of emotion—notably self-pity—and is certainly no stranger to wine. All this to say that, for Victor, the cause is novel but the effect is the same. This doesn't make him jaded. He reacts to his neighbor's despair with empathy and recognition—it's a feeling he is well-acquainted with.

It is from Victor's resigned, world-weary vantage point that we learn of subsequent upheavals. Victor is disappointed with what he sees, but he is never acerbic, never dismissive. His pessimism trumps his sense of wonder. He knows too well that the end effects of the latest change,  whatever they may be, will most likely be for the worse. There is evidence of this from the beginning of the Death Wishing phenomenon. An old soldier dies, and his wish comes true: hundreds of alien bodies appear in Roswell, New Mexico. He's always claimed they were there—now they really are. Excitement follows the discovery, but scientists find nothing. "The aliens didn't come from anywhere, and they couldn't tell us anything we didn't already know. They were the perfect ambassadors of our limits."

 

Scott's novel feels remarkably of the moment, and particularly in tune with its setting. The supernatural premise may provide the impetus for the raucous episodes that fill the novel, but you get the sense that, for the citizens of New Orleans, such chaos always lurked just beneath the surface of everyday life. Perhaps this feeling comes from the fact that, zany premise aside, the novel is very much rooted in reality and recent events. In the midst of science fiction, history vies for prominence; none of the odd occurrences in the novel quite matches Katrina in its impact. And for all their bumbling and comic excesses, the trait that most unites Scott's characters is their resilience. More wishes bring more radical changes, but the city receiving these shocks is one that is uniquely endowed to absorb them.

Scott's technique is to show how massive events impinge on humdrum domesticity. The world slowly unravels on the flickering television screen in the corner, and Victor and Val follow along, seated at the breakfast table, sipping cups of coffee that—another wish—constantly refill themselves. The satire hinges on this marriage of the incredible and the banal.  Across the nation viewers rely on a panel of pundits and celebrities to explain the phenomenon of Death Wishing, which leads to televised debates that are so popular they get turned into a reality show. Activist groups emerge, championing the phrase "wish local," while on the other side of the spectrum, religious groups urge their adherents to wish for apocalypse.

One wisher resurrects Elvis, who winds up serving as the novel's weird center. "The Elvis was no run of the mill pop star; he was the reconstituted American dream." Just what this dream is, though, is unclear, and Elvis spends most of his time moping. Even as this narrative plays out nationally, Val and Victor—even Elvis—struggle with the question of what they would wish for at the end. Doing so forces them to consider what their lives might mean. The underlying issue, what gives particular urgency to the phenomenon of Death Wishing, is mortality.

Scott pulls off wonders with her novel's twisted scenarios. They are funhouse mirrors, warped enough to hold our attention but not so distorted that we don't fail to recognize ourselves. This is true both at the individual level and for the image Scott gives of the United States. The outsider vantage of New Orleans in general and the novel's outcast characters in particular is well-suited to this purpose. At one point in Death Wishing the characters look up and discover that someone has wished the clouds orange. Previous wishes have brought changes throughout the country, but with this one, the clouds are only orange over New Orleans. Even in crisis, it seems, the city can't help but assert its peculiar character. However it may change, New Orleans only resembles itself more closely.