Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sweet Tomb

Sex and Candy
Trinie Dalton’s New Skewed Bedtime Tale
by Lonely Christopher

Like her previous book Wide Eyed, the cover art of Trinie Dalton’s new novella inspires the reaction “I must read this thing.” Sweet Tomb is decorated by illustrations, by Matt Greene, of sexy witches amongst gingerbread houses. You either love Dalton’s precious obsession with fantasy or you don’t. It is recommended that, despite possible prejudices, you should align with the former position (at least taste it). The author’s continual magic act is that her thematic interests never lapse into tacky or saccharine territory. The fairytale universe of Sweet Tomb also avoids the postmodern posturing of, say, certain spinners of fable retellings with academic/feminist/whatever-pretentious bents (you know the authors). Minus the winkingly critical edge of those guys, Dalton’s story is more like a Nickelodeon show for adults. It is published by Madras Press, a just-established venture that issues short volumes of new fiction and donates all proceeds to charitable organizations of the authors’ choosing; Sweet Tomb benefits the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants. This is a tale of a witch named Candy who grew up in a gingerbread house at the foot of a pink volcano. This is not to be taken ironically or absurdly because it’s, straight-up, a grown-up fairytale (and is as fun and touching as one generous enough to admit it might imagine). Sweet Tomb skillfully repeats how Wide Eyed dodges the smug-shruggy hipster flimsiness lesser authors than Dalton oft succumb to especially when dealing with the thematically fanciful (the secret is earnestness, which hipster writers lack like a birth defect).

More surprisingly is that this book excludes the mechanism that’s probably her previous collection’s brightest virtue: the way that the macabre lurks, constant, under every rainbow bedspread ruffle of the prose. Sweet Tomb does contain a few creepily insidious set pieces that might confuse and upset any child who tried it out as a bedtime story, but this tale is predominantly anchored in the sweet with only sometimes tombish tinges. Even the gross-out grimness is cartoonish. Since the balance of dread and joy absolutely made Wide Eyed, it was hard to imagine success without it, at the outset anyway. Such choices, with other decisions of craft, are proved valid and made a problem in different ways. This new book is probably slightly less cohesive, overall, when compared to her previous effort (although what does that claim really mean?); Sweet Tomb definitely shows structural flaws, when totally considered, qua narrative, feeling slightly unfinished, loose ends waving like colored yarn off the flirtingly unshapely arc, but in terms of style all must nevertheless/inevitably rejoice at Dalton’s precocious victory and succumb to the sugary pleasure of her world (warts and all).

Candy has mom issues and boy problems: not typical witch stuff. She worries over her witch status as if afflicted pathologically (indeed, she curses her mother for cursing her in passing along genetically her witchy condition). Anyway, her mom’s dead, being one of the first witches to go from old age (usually it was being burned or drowned), but Candy still resents the life she was born into. Her mom told her, “Be a good witch, Candy.” She responded, “What should I do with my life?” Her mom instructed, “Make candy, practice magic, and do something great every day.” Of course, Candy’s mother also ate her playmates (as witches are wont to) --- a grim reality she only detects in retrospect --- which distracts Candy from appreciating the witching life about as much as does her unfortunate habit of dating “unsavory men.”

Romantically, she’s in rough shape. She begins menaced early by a real epic creep (his description is best left to be discovered: a very fine and unsettlingly comic caricature of evil) who apparently makes her his unwitting child bride, a stalker situation that requires some morbid spell activity to counter, and later she does hardly better with an on-again-off-again relationship with a douchey vampire named Chad. Sometimes Chad can be a charmer, and writes cute notes sentimentally recalling their sexy days spent in the woods: “Makeout Forest was the best place for making out. It had big, green oak trees, lots of benches, and soft, dry places to lie down, and streams running through it, making it more private. These were the Privacy Streams.” But Chad is an enabler of Candy’s waywardness. They accidently burn Makeout Forest down, of course, fooling around with their supernatural powers. Also, Chad really really likes sucking Candy’s blood, which puts her at risk of being his undead slave bride (we’ve all seen it). Candy describes her boyfriend’s “no means yes” date-rape approach to sucking blood from her neck: “‘Stop,’ I said, nudging him. I didn’t push because his fangs would rip me if incorrectly withdrawn. He extruded his teeth slowly, to cauterize the spots. It didn’t work, so two streams of blood ran down my shoulder. I touched my fingers to them.” She’s pissed and insists, “Take me home.” Her vampire boyfriend responds with seductive insensitivity: “‘Calm down,’ Chad said. ‘Or you’ll lose more.’ He laid me down, rolling a sweater up under my head. The blood pool next to me looked like an oil slick.” Eventually, Candy fights back with magical girl power, and turns Chad into a cat. And then into a chocolate cat.

Strangely, although Candy feels fated to die of a sugar rush, she secretly develops vegetarian sympathies. She shirks on candy making and cultivates a garden. The sad but inevitable occurs as she continues to be menaced by a needy and selfish male: viz. an apparition of Pinocchio, appearing near-death in her garden having cut off his nose leaving a bloody gash. Yeah, so, vaguely related but abrupt, that’s one of the parts that kind of juts out of the baggy narrative shape. Before long, this aside is abandoned as an undigested anecdote, and the adventure swerves off toward a new situation. The major plus of Sweet Tomb is that our heroine Candy, always with us (becoming the chapters’ most reliable aspect), is bloomy (or like a fat, colorful flower bud, whatever) and drawn in saturated definition: she’s a girl we get used to and like.

Yet the story considered as a sum of its parts (basically a novella of six interconnected tales/chapters) reads as emaciated enough to have to remark upon; sometimes it feels like an outline for a longer, more comprehensive novel. Although the final narrative turn, which introduces a wandering Candy to the feminine but skeletal figure of Death (who becomes a friend and helps Candy dress for a party thrown on some mystical plane by Evil, who takes the form of Olivia Newton John, naturally), reads delightfully and is real fun, this skit-like disruption of pre-established themes (and introduction of new elements/characters/levels of consciousness) is somewhat awkwardly incompatible with the flow-in-progress; well, it feels a tad bathetic --- and leaves the reader happy but craving more unity, consistency, and depth. Mind, it would be worthless to attempt such picky criticism unless Sweet Tomb was an utterly fantastic read, which it is. Importantly: the heart of the matter is this thing has huge heart. That’s what does it; that’s why it’s so enjoyable, hilarious, and touching; and that is why the joyful dark playfulness that characterizes Dalton’s work draws lacey resonance in unlikely but welcome strokes of crayon and chalk. The compact book is a little gift that reasserts Trinie Dalton, with her unique quirks and craft-sense, as one of the most exciting emerging writers of contemporary fiction. Madras Press, which operates on a worthy model and should be monitored/supported by anyone interested in the best of small press activity today, couldn’t have found a nicer match for its format than this imperfect and delicious Sweet Tomb.

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