10 February 2011

Read This: Mama Fish by Rio Youers

You know when you read a book and there's just something super familiar about it? It's not just that the characters are like you in some way, although they might be. It's more like you're talking to someone who grew up in the same town you did, and is almost exactly your age. You share a slang, a lingo, a frame of reference, or several frames of reference. It's uncanny.

Mama FishI had this feeling, persistently, while reading Mama Fish by Rio Youers. I chalk it up to the fact that the narrator, Patrick Beauchamp, is pretty much exactly my age, and Youers is from Canada, so there may be some crypto-Canadian subtleties in there that lulled me into a sense of familiarity. Like Patrick, I've been in a near-death-causing accident (although I busted my arms and head, not my back, so I'm still able to walk and only partly made of metal). More importantly, Youers is a great writer, so the experience of reading Mama Fish is immersive.

This slender novella riffs on a couple of familiar tropes: the rapid absorption of new technologies into society and the weirdo kid at school, but does so in a manner that's completely fresh. The story flips between Patrick's memories of his spectacularly failed attempt to befriend Kelvin Fish, the high school outcast, and his present-day experiences as father and paraplegic. When he goes back to his old home town, past meets present, and there is revelation! and cataclysm! The writing is lyrical, and the subject matter speculative.

If I could recommend Mama Fish solely on the use of one word, it would be "whale," used as a verb, as in "to whale on" someone or something, as in, to beat the crap out of him / her / it. I say it often, but to see it written down is something else. Here's the paragraph, part of the scene in which Patrick finds a couple of bullies beating up on Kelvin Fish:

The cluster of trees was on the corner of Jackson and Columbus. They enclosed a lousy scrub of land where people used to dump their broken appliances and take their dogs for a crafty, no-need-to-scoop poop (you'll find a Dunkin' Donuts there today - make of that what you will). Hidden from the road, it was the perfect spot for a couple of bullies to whale on a defenseless kid.

I know, right?

Mama Fish could have been a technophobe's delight, a morality tale that tsk-tsks about the weirdness of our deep interconnectedness with the gadgets that we love so dearly. It does go there for some passages, but it doesn't stop there, which is part of its brilliance.

More impressively, Youers slings metaphors and similes like he's frickin' Mary Gaitskill. An accident victim's body is contorted on the road, "his legs curved over his head like a scorpion's tail," while "pale rags of steam fluttered in the air" from a busted-up car.

Personally, I like using simile and metaphor, but those moments in my writing always feel like my feet are leaving the ground, and I'm just as likely to face plant as I am to perform a neat shoulder roll and come up with my hands in a "ta-daaa!" (See what I did there?) More often than not, I stick with concrete description rather than go for a metaphor or simile, out of fear that I will fall flat on my face and cause a fuss. Reading Mama Fish reminded me of how poetic language can enhance a story. If you're a speculative fiction writer who is reading to enhance your craft, you could do worse than pick up a copy of Mama Fish.

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