Topic #21: Read a book published by a micropress.
Book: Sip, by Brian Allen Carr
Publisher: Soho Press, New York
“The sun was up, so the dark could start. Everywhere, men and women dragged themselves into the light from wallows and hovels, from snag crooks and mishap holes to drop, once again, into the stupor that the sun gave them.”
As it turns out, the end of the world wasn’t all that final. It’s the middle of the 21st century, decades after the human race discovered that you could get high drinking your own shadow off the ground, and the species is still hobbling toward the future despite the lack of anything much to call civilization. Some of humankind live in domed cities without sunlight, others march around the countryside in all-women militia forces that slaughter everyone they meet, while most just live in the wreckage of the cities and towns that were once bursting with life. A young girl named Mira takes care of her shadowless mother, catching and feeding her the shadows of birds so her mother can sleep like she did before her shadow was stolen. Just as Mira is beginning to crack under this burden, she meets Bale, a man from a domed city, and she sets off with him and her shadow-addicted friend, Murk, on a journey to find a cure for her mother’s condition.
For a post-apocalyptic world, the setting of Sip is strangely calm. Despite the bands of shadow junkies who would gladly kill for their next fix and the armies of well-trained murderers, Mira, Murk and Bale live in relative safety, hardly ever crossing paths with these dangerous elements. Brian Allen Carr seems far more interested in invoking the gritty mundanity of a Western than the thrills or shocks of the horror genre and the book is well-served by it. Sip trades excitement for a suffocating malaise that lingers in every gesture and every word spoken. Even when Mira’s life grows more dangerous and bodies start to drop, a certain weary indifference is preserved, as though even the shock of death is not enough to restore a soul to a soulless world.
The fact that Sip is anything other than unbearably grim is a testament to the power of Carr’s dialog. His characters, if somehow considered without the strength of their dialog, would be merely serviceable extensions of their nihilistic environment, so emotionally drained that they find it nearly impossible to dream of better lives. However, the way his characters banter constitutes something like an act of rebellion against this quiet despair. The daily grind has imparted them with a sardonic wit, and their conversations are overstuffed with sarcasm, barbed insults and mean-spirited jokes. There’s hardly a wasted word in any of it, every sentence sharp and straightforward, and it’s lively enough that the whole cast, both starring and supporting, seems frighteningly real at times, even when they’re performing supernatural feats.
The impossibility of drinking a shadow isn’t given much more attention than a shrug or a wink here and there, the book more concerned with what the world is than how it got that way. There are other supernatural elements too; for instance, most shadow addicts have strange shape-shifting powers, and Mira possesses the unexplained and apparently-unique power to talk to animals. While it’s not clear why exactly people would have these abilities, Sip is entirely clear on what they do and how they function, so beyond the first thirty establishing pages, there aren’t any surprises as to what is or isn’t possible in the setting.
While Mira and her two friends are the most prominent characters by far, Carr insists on filling his world with other people, strangers who streak through the lives of the main cast like comets and vanish just as suddenly. Every single one of them has a story of their own, but they are all doomed to either die or to vanish from the story before we have time to learn what becomes of them. Carr’s melancholy setting seems to swallow hope and smother ambition, and the more humanity is crushed underneath this melancholy, the more one wonders whether it is even possible for Mira’s aspirations to be any less doomed than all the others.
Considering how much there is to experience in this book, it’s surprising just how small it is. There’s a great deal of genuine drama, as well as a healthy amount of dark humor wrapped up in just three-hundred short pages. I drank it down ferociously, and I suspect I will be returning to it in the future.
Final Grade: A-