Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gothic Teenagers

With all of its talk of demon possession, reality versus superstition, and sexual violence, Body Surfing reminded me strongly of the Gothic literature that could be considered its spiritual predecessor. Because I just read Frankenstein, I initially made connections specifically to that story. There was reanimation by an electrical current (at least that was Q.’s theory) to create human monsters much more powerful than the average person. There was a cat and mouse chase between good and evil, with the roles and the blame for lives lost almost continuously conflated. There were questions of free will and a focus on corporeality. Of course, all of these ideas come up in the Gothic in general, and I think it’s ultimately better to tie Body Surfing to the genre as a whole than to one work within the genre.

This book was written in a much different world than early Gothic literature (which often focused on the idea of rejecting contemporary Catholic superstitions in light of the Protestant Reformation), but it still took up the Gothic game of playing with superstitions we aren’t supposed to believe in any more, and reminding us that sometimes we believe in them anyway. People have talked about the fact that the book was gripping, disgusting, and extremely graphic. I thought it was all of those things too, but my initial classification was that it was scary. Horrifying because possession occurred through violent acts of rape, horrifying because innocent lives were sacrificed in order to save everyone else from demons, but mostly horrifying because it made the idea of a total loss of control seem very real in today’s world. It’s possible that I’m particularly susceptible to scary stories, especially about demons (someone in the Gothic era would probably blame too much Catholic education), but I had to stop reading multiple times because the story was scaring me.

In a way, my own fear extended the metaphor of possession. Reading always involves this process of violation to some extent. Someone else’s story takes over our own consciousness for a little while, and our ability to get out of the story is dependent on its hold on us. And anything worth reading usually leaves some trace behind once we’re done with it. But then we do get be done with it. We get to choose what we read and how much of it we read. I could stop reading when the book, particularly its talk of a lack of choice, got a little overwhelming, and do something else for a while.

Nevertheless, books do have a lasting impact. Ultimately this story was not just a reworking of Gothic themes, but an amalgamation of many genres and styles. To use the body surfing metaphor a little differently now, if Gothic literature was the novel's spiritual predecessor, it was a spirit that traveled around through other genres, picking up what they had to offer as it went – mythology, young adult fiction, modern religious capers. And like the process of the demons within the story, this movement and its connection to humanity sustained the book as a whole, and eventually got me to continue reading, even when I was afraid. Body Surfing was graphic and disgusting and scary, but it also told a story about teenage friends who cared about each other and a boy who almost reconnects with his father, though only after death and tragedy. There is Gothic excess, but there is something human holding together the demons passing through. Whether that's a necessary act of possession or an act of manipulation is something I haven't quite figured out yet.


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