Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
It seems that for some time, the Pacific Northwest has been the cultural ground zero for the bizarre, the quirky, and the menacing. The seventies and eighties presented ur-grunge bands like The Wipers and Dead Moon, while the nineties gave the world My Own Private Idaho and David Lynch's quirkily menacing Twin Peaks. Indeed, thanks to grunge and Laura Palmer, during the nineties, the region seemed like the perfect place to be if you were alienated or wanted to be murdered and wrapped in plastic.
It's against this backdrop of moist malice and malaise that debut novelist Grace Krilanovich sets The Orange Eats Creeps. Ostensibly, the book is presented as the story of a nameless teen vampire who roams with a gang of what she describes as "teenage hobo vampire junkies" searching for her missing foster sister. However, these vampires have atypical cravings. "I've been living off crank, cough syrup and blood for a year now," the narrator tells us. It's telling that blood is mentioned last, as the novel eschews traditional vampire tropes of damned souls, the thirst for blood, and eternal ennui, opting instead for boxcars, abandoned strip malls, and a seemingly endless string of punk rock gigs.
The novel begins in a straightforward manner, with a raid on a Safeway and talk of intimidating bag boys. What sounds like the start of a feeding frenzy soon oozes into descriptions of missing foster siblings and hobo lore. If a reader is expecting to find out if this vampire finds what she's looking for or ends up on the business end of a wooden stake, they'll be lost after just a few pages, as the narrator unspools a melange of metaphor and decadence. The destinations in The Orange Eats Creeps are less geographical and more sensual and metaphysical.
The characters that inhabit this novel call themselves vampires, but the literary precursors that the author summons are less rooted in the lore created by Bram Stoker and further mined by writers like Anne Rice (or even Stephenie Meyer, since it's impossible to discuss any post-millennial novel featuring vampires, real or metaphoric, without mentioning her). Instead, Krilanovich chooses the hyper-self-reflective, chemically saturated, and sensually obsessed territory favored by Symbolist writers like Huysmans, Rimbaud, and Lautreamont (whose Les chants de Maldoror was the first thing I thought of while reading this book), with Robitussin, not absinthe, fueling her narrator's visions.
What I most appreciate about this novel is that when other young writers attempt to navigate the waters of ennui, obsession, and self-loathing, it comes across as forced. The writing is less an artistic self-examination and more like primal scream therapy with a typewriter. You can drip paint on a canvas, but that doesn't make you Jackson Pollock. And while sometimes her narrator sounds like bad Nirvana lyrics ("We're just DIY perverts, DIY dirt, DIY death"), Krilanovich effortlessly presents these usual emotional underpinnings of young-adult life with a vibrancy that is potent and entirely original.
The Orange Eats Creeps is not an easy book to just jump into. It challenges your senses, and, as Steve Erickson writes in his introduction, "takes leave of sense and demands the reader do the same." However, if the reader is willing to trust where the author is taking them, they will find what all truly effective surreal art offers: order from chaos and a truth that none of our existing senses would find on their own.
Books mentioned in this post