Date read: 2.6.09
Read from: Originally borrowed from Kakaner; now in personal collection, via Burning Building
At twelve, David falls asleep on a schoolbus, and meets, literally, the girl of his dreams. In real life, he grows up, marries a woman he thinks he loves, and proceeds to destroy both of their lives. He is unable to shed the belief that somewhere beyond the world he sees every day, there’s another one that’s more vital, more beautiful – and most importantly, is home to the girl whom he still glimpses in maddeningly brief and unpredictable snatches. Soon, even his waking life is invaded by the inexplicable: radio towers appear and disappear; cryptic cassette tapes appear on his welcome mat; he wakes up in his car in places that he doesn’t remember driving to. David is terrified, infuriated, and eventually obsessed by these “messages,” desperate to take control and escape a life that seems to hold no meaning except for the conviction that love lies elsewhere.
The Inside is a strange book. Though I hate to pin it down with genre terms (I know, then why am I doing it?), it’s most easily described as part psychological horror/suspense, part romance, part weird. After Kakaner lent me her copy (I bought my own later), I was haunted by it every moment that I wasn’t actually reading it, quite as obsessed as David, and a little frightened. Ultimately, I didn’t even care so much about the eventual reveals as I did about the process of getting to them, which is absolutely absorbing, often moving, and beautiful in a crazed, pained kind of way. I do think the novel falters towards the end, which I found somewhat rushed and a little incoherent, and there are certain other moments when Marion tries too hard to maintain the book’s tone, and slips into wryer-than-thou territory. Overall, though, Marion is an extremely assured writer, with a distinctive, effective voice and good control of pacing and plot.
Much of Marion’s writing is clearly informed by his own life experience – notably, his recurring use of Washington, his home state, as a setting – and it’s clear that he’s a keen observer of both place and people. He describes facial expressions, for example, with remarkable and occasionally humorous detail, and his characters’ dialogue, like the book’s action, has a natural, perversely pleasing rhythm underlying the emptiness of what’s actually said. The whole book feels weighted and rhythmic, like a slow-motion dream, or – to use a line straight from the book – like living underwater. Marion’s characters literally drown in the greyness, the horrible, ordinary inadequacy of their lives: this is not so much quiet desperation as silently screaming desperation. Not an unusual theme in contemporary literature, but the frankness and raw reality of Marion’s writing saves it from cliché. There’s an almost aggressive immediacy to his work, due in large part to the element of autobiography, that I think sets it apart from the numerous works of fiction (both genre and not) with similar themes. To again be self-contradictory and make a comparison, he’s rather like Chuck Palahniuk in this respect, but minus the obnoxious obsession with shock value and overstylization that plagues Palahniuk’s later work.
As we learn more about the world that David longs for, his quest for completion becomes both an act of escape (with all the consequences that escape incurs) and an affirmation of humanity’s innate desire for love. The titular “inside” that is eventually revealed to us is strangely beautiful in concept, and suggests that every human is constantly, unconsciously seeking to create, animate, and complete – and furthermore, that these efforts do not go unrewarded.
The Inside was my first full-length taste of Isaac Marion’s writing, and introduced me to his trademark, paradoxical blend of cynicism and luminous romanticism. The same emotional and thematic conflict is at the heart of his second novel, Warm Bodies (reviews here and here), but, I think, is better executed here. The inevitable sentiment plays out with more balance and complexity, while Warm Bodies is unabashedly heavy on the cliché (if rather adorable nonetheless). The Inside is bitterly dark, fleetingly lovely, and very strange. Marion is definitely an author who deserves wider renown.