Review by Lisa Spieker.
Brian Booker’s debut novel, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016), leaves the reader with a feeling of vague unease. In seven stories, dislocated and troubled characters suffer from rare illnesses, illnesses that remain mostly unnamed and are quite possibly imagined. Even the most mundane of these afflictions are transformed in the characters’ minds until they take on the uncanny quality and significance that everyday objects acquire in fever dreams: Warts on the hands may evolve into rudimentary eyes. Sneezing will have you put into quarantine, possibly for several years. Unrelenting rain causes moods to fester and “a perilous loosening in the delicate structures of the mind” (190).
Booker’s stories are populated by characters and are set in places that at first seem realistic, but turn out to be just a little off; not much, just enough to set you on edge. There are tramps obsessed with the numerology of dreams, a resort guest with “the air of a ruined southern belle” (87), and an obnoxious harbinger of doom. Some stories are set in spaces of otherness, heterotopias that exist in parallel or on the fringes of society and reality. In “Love Trip,” a teenage boy is sent to a boarding school with all the trappings of a New Age cult inspired by the antipsychiatry movement. Pressured to reveal the secret motivations for mentally unbalanced acts he never quite committed, to give up “the lie behind the lie” (241), the boy elaborately describes an invented childhood trauma but becomes increasingly unsure whether he really made it all up. In the story, “A Drowning Accident,” a boy is send to recover from a mysterious sleeping sickness in an East Coast resort reminiscent of the run-down Coney Island freak show in Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. There, “twice daily in the summer [a deep-sea] net was raised from “The Living Gulfs of Doom,” and whatever cold-blooded monstrosities chanced to have been trapped in that abysmal region were dumped on the planks[…], displayed for all to see” (58).
In “Gumbo Limbo”, the scenery of a little seaside town becomes increasingly fantastical as people are driven insane by ceaseless rain and moisture: A “weird hollow noise [was heard], a kind of dysphoric reverberation that seemed to come from everywhere at once and no place in particular” (189). After several days of rain that was “quiet, vertical, whispering, incessant […] [m]ushrooms with unusual ocher labia sprouted in the cellars; rare black molds got a death grip in the walls. Mucus ran freely. Slimy heaps of refuse rotted in the breezeways […] The giant pods of some strange profligate plant crunched softly underfoot. […] Two weeks into the slow deluge a kind of dentiform barnacle, lilac in color, had attached itself by way of a gummy tendon to every latch, newel, baluster, and gutter pipe; by the seventeenth day the peak of every chitinous bud had split and extruded a tiny fiddlehead nub, which within hours had unfurled, with obscene grace, into a false wind foot or storm tentacle” (189-90). The townsfolk, who even in more pleasant circumstances suffer from obscure ailments like crepitus and albugo, quinsy and Saint Vitus’ dance, flock to the Apothek with more serious complaints. Rumors “germinat[e] in the fertile rot of Gumbo Limbo” (190) that the apothecary’s adopted son keeps a mermaid in a jar, which must be returned to the angry sea. The boy indeed cares for a melancholy speaking sea creature and it is this turn to the overtly fantastical that creates an atmosphere like the one in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things or Stardust.
Recurring phrases and motifs – like “prepare for the worst,” the mysterious sleeping sickness, or the moral implications of certain diseases – turn the collection into an echo chamber where a sense of impending doom ricochets off the walls. Like a strange collection of symptoms that defies all neat diagnostic categories, these motifs suggest meaning but refuse to be placed in a single coherent framework. The reader is thus forced into the role of a literary hypochondriac and left to wonder: what is imagined? What is real?
To compare these stories to the writing of Kafka as Salvatore Scibona and Casey Walker do is probably an overstatement. They do have a dreamlike quality – a dream on the verge of turning into a nightmare that is – but they are frequently less economical with words, more grounded in popular culture and thus lack the sense of timelessness that permeates the Kafkaesque. Yet, the collection is about variations of the uncanny and narrated in multiple styles. And like the horror movies which the protagonist in “Brace for Impact” enjoys, Booker’s stories keep the reader on edge: One can readily see all of them “end in madness, because the bad thing might turn out to be inside you – where it had been all along” (13).