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Review: Bliss by Lauren Myracle

Title: Bliss
Author: Lauren Myracle
Genre: Teen Horror, Southern Gothic, Young Adult
How I got it: personal purchase
Where to buy it: From your local indie bookstore; from Powells; from the Book Depository.
In a nutshell: Our heroine is a true hippie, raised on a commune in the 60's before being sent to live in - gasp! - the non-hippy, racially charged South, with all its traditions and mannerisms and simmering tensions. Complicating issues, our heroine, determined to stick to her upbringing and never judge anyone by their outward appearances, rejects the friendship of the pretty, popular, virtuous blonde prom queen, and takes up instead with an outcast, overweight, socially awkward, mentally unstable lesbian. Who's plotting to kill people. And using a whole bunch of Southern gothic-style black magic to do it.

(It's kind of hard to make this plot sound less facepalmy than it is. More on that to follow.)

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Do the characters make you want to rip your own face off? From, like, chapter two. Actually, I was mostly too busy being mystified by the subtext of this story, and second-guessing myself by assuming that the plot couldn't really be this straightforwardly sizeist/homophobic, not to mention this... typical.

Does the plot make sense? Yes! it's actually very straightforwardly a narrative about how not everything is straightforward, and sometimes things that appear to be straightforward actually are straightforward, because sometimes stereotypes are GOOD, except when they're not. oh my god.

Is the prose abysmal? The prose is actually really engaging and LM does this thing that's super-effective where she takes all these Andy Griffith Show quotes out of context and makes them somehow CREEPY AS ALL GET-OUT. Also she switches to the POV of our villain, which was actually really chilling, though the longer her narrative voice went on, the more Alpha's Evil Chipmunk voice from Up took over in my head.

Does it end on a cliffhanger only designed to make you buy more books? No, but some things make a little more sense when you realize that Bliss is actually the prequel to another book, Rhymes with Witch.

Okay, since the plot is pretty much handed to you on a platter with no surprises from page one, I'm going to come right out and say that I spent the whole book waiting for the plot to not be the plot. It made for a super-confusing read and after it was over I basically begged Cathy to tell me what I thought about what I'd just read. Which she obviously didn't do, so instead I'm going to ramble at you about Lauren Myracle's weird ambivalence about morality versus the South, and also GAY SERIAL KILLERS.

Bliss is more or less a horror novel whose basic message is "sometimes people fit stereotypes and sometimes they don't, so come to your own conclusions about a person's character." That's a pretty wishy-washy theme for a book like this to carry because it's, on one level, all about social justice. The third-wave feminist in me is confused all over the place about how to respond to this book. On the one hand, this is a book, set amid racial tensions in the 60's South, that is ostensibly all about combating stereotypes. On the other hand, it does this while presenting you with two of the biggest stereotypes of all--the purehearted, virginal blonde prom queen, and the evil, freakish, overweight, predatory lesbian.

After an attempt at deliberately befriending the freakish creepy chick because of her outcast state, and rejecting the popular girl because she doesn't want to be a part of the system that rewards "pretty" with "privilege," our heroine finds herself drawn into an evil diabolical Southern Gothic plot because she chose the wrong friend. That's right. The pure virginal blonde chick was that pure and chaste and good, while the ugly fat chick was just that ugly on the inside.

And I want to gve LM props here, because the evil character is genuinely creepy, at least at first, and I was seriously freaked out. And one of the staples of horror is that, predatory lesbians = evil! physical deformity = evil! mental instability = evil! all of these things put together= TRYING TO KILL YOU AHHH. Even more, there's the trope of ~born evil~ going on, so, hey, you have a female character proudly standing tall (and smiling creepily) alongside Michael Myers, Damien, and Chucky. So part of me is thinking, Myracle is a smart writer, and she's deliberately filled her novel with all kinds of statements against prejudice and stereotyping, so maybe she's just having fun and reveling in that stereotype just because of how ridiculously over-the-top it is.

But I'm not 100% sure, because there's a whole lot going on in this book, and there are deeply unironic comparisons being made between the evil character's wish to create social anarchy and Charles Manson. Plus, there is a point early on at which the evil character behaves in a way that clearly indicates mental instability (but which is not actually EVIL), which is later pointed out in a "that should have been the tip-off that this character was nuts/psycho" way. So now we have sizeism, homophobia, and ableism, all in one evil package.

But it's not actually that straightforward in a narrative that's all about things not being that straightforward--or is it?

I do think, overall, the author made a definite statement about stereotyping being less simple than you think it is. The judgmental catty girls that the protagonist can't stand at first become humanized and relatively complex characters (friendly and well-meaning, but with unthinking racist judgments that falter when challenged), and the beautiful virgin prom queen that the heroine initially rejects at face value turns out to be the best of them all. Then again, the heroine learns to like the judgmental catty girls as she becomes more judgmental herself, and there's nothing subversive at all about equating beauty with goodness. There's also an element of Robert Cormier-ing going on, in that one of the book's primary themes is assimilation into systemic cultural values, and how hard it is to withstand even when we try. For the most part our heroine resists that impulse, but on some other levels, she doesn't; so I was left wondering how much of her narrative judgments about people were becoming more deceptive as she became more ingrained into a society that defined people through stereotypes.

The problem, for me, is that while the text was saying, over and over, "don't stereotype people, take them on an individual level," it was really hard to swallow that when the text was *also* putting forth the predatory lesbian trope, the overweight loner trope, the physical deformity = mental instability and both = evil tropes. Those are a hell of a lot of tropes to put in one story, unchallenged, to force on to one character. Literally all the suspense this book provided for me was wondering when and if they would ever be subverted at the last minute. They weren't. And while I enjoyed Bliss as a read, I think the only real takeaway I can pull out from its mish-mash of cultural clashes, racial tensions, and prejudices being alternately challenged and upheld is, "some stereotypes are there for a reason." And I think, even in a book that stringently challenges its readers to think for themselves and make individual judgments about people, that's a ridiculously disturbing moral for a book to have.

But then again, maybe that's what makes it a truly effective horror novel.

Your thoughts?

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Tags: books, gay serial killers, politics
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