Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Others of My Kind by James Sallis

This could be James Sallis's oddest novel. At the same time, it could also be one of his best. Odd, not  because the narrative voice belongs to Jenny Rowan, a woman who, as a child, was abducted and kept prisoner for a several years. Finally, she escapes only to spend several years in a shopping mall some twenty miles from Harpers Ferry, living off whatever food and clothing punters discard. No, the novel's oddness has less to do with  those who inhabit it than with the manner in which the narrative moves, which at times is oblique enough to border on the surreal. Normally one thinks of the surreal in terms of imagery- here the image of Jenny as a young girl being kept in a box under her captor's bed- comes close. But Sallis's short novel approaches that category through its structure, coming across like the literary equivalent of a game of exquisite corpse, in which one body part is overlaid onto another; though, in this case, with characters and plot bouncing off one another,  it's more a matter of placing narratives next to each other, to see if and how they fit.  Like a narrative equivalent to poet Robert Duncan's concept of tone-leading.

As we've come to expect from Sallis, Others of My Kind is inhabited by vulnerable yet resilient people, capable of doing surprising things. Indeed, what matters is how Jenny responds to the twists and turns of the plot that has become her life. Found by a kind security guard, she's placed in the  child-care system until, at age sixteen, she gains her autonomy.  Not surprisingly, her life is anything but  straightforward. Likewise, her feelings regarding her abductor. Employed as a news and documentary editor at a TV station, she's contacted by a detective who asks if  she'd  assist him in a case regarding another young girl who'd been  abducted and sexually abused. Jenny visits and befriends the young woman. Though Jenny has carved out a life for herself, she can't help but be a victim of circumstances. In this near-future world- familiar yet skewered-  there's an even greater degree of political turmoil than now. Everything is in flux, no more so for someone with Jenny's history. About survival and how one plays the cards one's been dealt, Others of My Kind is a long way from the Sallis's Lew Griffin novels. But, on the other hand, maybe not. After all, they're part of the same world. Not a crime novel as such, except in the largest sense of the term.  Going from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from darkness to light, Others of My Kind is as moving a novel as anything Sallis has written. And however odd the structure, the parts  have a surprising coherence, equal to the whole; in fact, are crucial to its existence.

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