Seizures Short Circuit The Brain, Life, And Mind Of Electricity's Complex Heroine
Ray Robinson has breathed angry, hot little life into the improbably tall, beautiful, angry, and stupid protagonist of his new novel, Electricity (Black Cat/Grove Press). He gave her a mean, sassy mouth, redolent with fishy North England slang. He sketched her vaguely, small-breasted, thin, with stunning dark looks, and gave her "the best ass and legs." He gave her an orphaned, ugly childhood. But most importantly, Electricity gives you the perfectly piquant vision of an epileptic working among an arcade's riot of lights. This perfect juxtaposition is not a joke, and it leaps out roaring from the first few pages, her seizure-addled face, peering out at you from a cacophony of tumbling neon. Thirty-year-old, unmarried Lily O'Connor has "fits." She has epileptic seizures and sees mad visions that have ruined her life--ever since Mum tossed her down a run of stairs as a little girl. As soon as dear old Mum bites it, Lily smacks her one good "across the gob" and you're catapulted back and forth in time. Only a few lines of Mum are drawn, and none of them is pretty--Mum hiding from her "little embarrassment" as Lily convulses on the grocery store floor, forcing Lily to wear pissed-in clothes after a seizure. Lily's full plate of neuroses reads like a menu of low-class wrongs: she falls in love with, and loses her virginity to, her stepfather; Mum sends her to the "care home"; time and a faceless child-welfare system rob her of her protective brothers and then prop her up in an improbable job in an improbable, lightly drawn seaside town. You are to believe that present-day Lily has never been on the internet, and that she has never had an orgasm with a man. Moments like these reduce one's ability to relate to this bitter heroine. Electricity takes place in a grim, gray Britain that feels like a Smiths chorus, and it's neither an easy coming-of-age book nor a toothless chick-lit fluffer. It reads like the diary of the wrongfully condemned, someone bitterly, bitterly imprisoned in the cell of her own simmering body. "Frying" or "buzzing," she seethes, inarticulate, in the animative wattage of her brain, which is "trying to fucking kill" her. Espaliered with "silver flecks and the rips of scars," Lily's pale, bruised body hurls itself about in paroxysms of agony as the electricity that animates her brain surges and recedes in tonic-clonic waves. It's almost beautiful. She's not learned--she hates her doctors, the "bright sparks" who prescribe her what she calls "blah blah blah." She hates the paramedics, she hates her epilepsy as if it were an entity. She hardly tries to understand, whining that "big words like that always make me feel sad." Yet she hates being anything "less than normal," and it is this complex thorn bush of motivation that brings her to life inside Robinson's flat prose. Lily is a proud brat, refusing to wear an "identity tag" that would allow paramedics to help her, because she's "not a dog." Her senses are dull--"it fries the part of my brain where smell is made," and she shuffles to the grocer's in slippers and pajamas, hallucinating a rotten sparrow perched on her uvula. She pisses herself, cannot tell her new boyfriend about her illness, and regularly has to check her teeth to make sure one has not been dashed out by the violent frettings of golden fire inside her skull. Lily O'Connor is also constrained to a skinny list of British slang terms. You would be angry, too, if your creator gave you a complex soul and life but only schoolyard slang with which to express yourself. Lipstick is always "lippy," and conflicts are childish sounds--"argy-bargy" or "hurly-burly." This complete dependence on British slang can only take Robinson so far, and perpetually referring to everything through similes becomes an exercise in hollow hyperbole. Lily's thoughts and feelings are a muddled, flat mash--everything "smooth-as" or "sexy-as" or "as skinny as" without a second thought, without any specific word used to finish the comparison. Ultimately, this habit distracts and limits any nuanced understanding of Lily's experiences. And you suspect, as Lily goes south and searches London for her roots, that Robinson is making a commentary about class, about the great "North-South divide" as he calls it. It connotes almost nothing and is largely ineffective on class-ignorant American readers. A few posh adjectives never harmed a girl's street cred. If he had gone fully into the brimming wake of nonsense--with pages of slurred impressions and made-up words--the work perhaps would have received a much-needed power surge. Robinson is largely successful, but minor flaws--using contemporary brand names instead of real adjectives--leap out, glaring and ugly. In what may appear to be an unorthodox approach, seizures and pills are represented by Robinson as a conceit of small icons or pictograms. Often the passage of time in Lily's world is represented only by a string of pills, a hundred tiny drawings of tablets and capsules. Instead of adrenalized bumps of action or conflict, you're given weepers, jokes, and a "seizure" conceit, which consists of a few pages of "gree-gree-schzerk-schzerkGREEGREE" screaming nonsense. Her seizures are depicted as heavy, dark pages full of shrieking nonsense flanked by orderly rows of pills. Although this mishmash is effective in its way, and is rather daring, it doesn't fully convey the earth-shaking megawatts that routinely rock Lily's world. On purpose or not, the disparate waves of energy inside Electricity could do well with a few William Burroughs- or Edward Abbey-inspired thunderbolts of poetic nonsense to break up all the cockney jingo and cute cartoons. You almost pity Lily, wanting to not be so harsh on her in her strange flat world, with her strange flat body that betrays and damages her. Almost. It would be much different if you didn't look back midbook and wonder why she has no past, why her feelings lack a body and have about as much power as a 40-watt bulb. Lily is hard to relate to because she is hateful, unreasonable, bratty, and upset. As she searches the gray, cold streets, the repetition of her predictable yet improbable feelings start to grate. In the last 30 pages of the book, however, Electricity delivers all the hot wattage it has been holding back--and you feel the "fizz" of life again, Robinson's unexpected juxtapositions work their magic, and it is illuminating, indeed.