Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania (Texts and Contexts)

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Vampires, Inner Demons, and a Desirable Form of Hell in Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps

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In Helene Cixous’s book, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, she speaks of three sources from which narratives take form: the school of death, the school of roots, and the school of dreams. Dreams must be followed but not over-analyzed, she cautions: “We must know how to dream as a dream, to leave it free, and to distrust all the exterior and interior demons that destroy dreams. We all have a demon, there is one hidden in a dream.” Later, when speaking to roots, she describes the place to which the writer must descend to unearth another form of demon. “Some call it hell: it is of course a good, a desirable hell.” The barrier between the writer and this hell, according to Cixous, is fear of uncovering something dangerous within.

However, some writers will descend. A form of hell is precisely what Grace Krilanovich writes to, and animates, in her novel The Orange Eats Creeps.

Although Krilanovich’s characters call themselves “vampires” they may or may not be vampires in the ghoulish sense the word usually brings to mind. And yet they certainly have their share of demons. Her vampires are not the surly, menacing Balkan variety that Téa Obreht chases after and chronicles in her recent Harper’s essay, “Twilight of the Vampires,” nor are they the ethically conflicted, more toothsome strain that dominate Western narratives like Twilight and True Blood. Obreht theorizes that the kinder, gentler American vampire “is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline.” While Krilanovich’s vampires, of the slutty hobo teenage junkie variety, are somewhat in line with Obreht’s assessment, instead of perpetuating fantasy they introduce a mythology of suburban decay.

The Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies take shelter in Safeways, 7-11s, and gas station bathrooms of the Pacific Northwest. They roam a countryside populated by meth houses, railways, gravel pits, and decrepit strip malls. There is a Highway That Eats People, which like the volcano of ages past, must be fed by young bodies (in their parents’ cars) in order to be pacified. Their kind are former foster children, runaways, outsiders who, by choice or not, slip beyond society. “Vampire” could as easily be called gutterpunk or street urchin. In a way, they’re just angry teenage misfits who act out, who wreak havoc for no reason. These vampires may not even be ageless, but they are still young enough that life seems interminable and its weight overwhelming, as if their lives will never end, no matter what destructive forces they encounter. They are restless, wandering souls.

The narrator’s initial foray into vampirism is prompted by her sister running away from their foster home. She “started sneaking out every night to suck men’s blood… I kept it up and eventually got caught with my mouth on some guy’s neck in a Safeway breakroom.” The vampires devour each other, sucking blood and sucking dick; and they devour themselves with their self-destructive tendencies, consuming at least as much meth and Robitussin as they do blood.

Krilanovich’s misfits join a vast list of literary protagonists and authors, like de Quincey, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Bourroughs, who sustain themselves on a cornucopia of drugs: uppers, white pills, Quaaludes, cough syrup, meth, alcohol, you name it. They have preferences of course, but they’re rather undiscriminating in their choices. Avital Ronell writes of addiction to drugs and literature, as well as within literature, in her book Crack Wars. Of addicted authors and addled literary characters, she writes:
…they tried to nourish themselves without properly eating. Whether injecting themselves or smoking a cigarette or merely kissing someone, they rerouted the hunting grounds of the cannibalistic libido. In a certain manner of conscious monitoring, they refused to eat–and yet they were always only devouring, or drinking up the toxic spill of the Other. Drugs make us ask what it means to consume anything, anything at all.
The narrator in The Orange Eats Creeps and her band of Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies are sustaining themselves with their addictions. The narrator hasn’t consumed any food except her gnawed fingernails, and at another point she notices the legs of her friend and lover, Seth, that buckle from malnourishment. As the narrator says of her companions (and this could be their mantra): “Our cause is nothing; we believe in nothing. Actually, we believe in Methamphetamine. I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now.” At times the vampirism and addiction merge and they imbibe Robitussin directly from veins. Blood is merely another substance they need and crave, no different than meth or bottles of cough syrup except for its source.

However, as vampires, their cannibalistic libido is still very much alive. As in Claire Denis’ erotic vampire film, Trouble Every Day, the vampiric desire for blood is conflated with sex and lust. In Denis’ film, Vincent Gallo’s character, Shane, refuses to have sex with his new wife, for fear that he’ll consume her, and Coré devours her victims during sex, biting off their lips, tearing their flesh with her teeth, lapping up their blood. For the narrator in The Orange Eats Creeps, sucking blood also has a sexually destructive edge. She first gets caught with her mouth on a man’s neck, and she starts turning tricks. When she awakens with little recollection of how she ended up in a waterbed, a man threatens to either “eat” her or to cut off her limbs. In turn she unleashes “blood-sucking rage” at these men who lay claim to her body. Almost in retaliation she wishes in a similar way to destroy them: “I seek prey out of the endless night, fog shrouding my knives, my secrets. I will rummage around in your soul–don’t let me! Don’t let me too close, I will bite you, I will tear at you, I want to eat you!”

At times Krilanovich’s vampires also ingest on a metaphysical level. The narrator speaks of a Laura Palmer-esque woman who was murdered, her body wrapped in a bundle and dumped. Her death was captured on videotape. The narrator watches this tape, and speaks of this woman, who is a vampire in her own way:
She will then kiss him full on the mouth, dropping breathless lips onto his, drawing back saliva to a place strange and wonderful in her brain and with it his thoughts, his being, a fluid transfer which has no more materiality than a kiss. It is this way she can know him, have him truly within her, to know his thoughts, to dream his dreams for him; to, in an abstract capacity, inhabit his way of being in this way–to not penetrate his core, but to take it into her so it becomes her core. All her life she had been amassing cores inside her body, to insert one more would not be a difficult task, and it would hardly be the last.
The narrator, in turn, ingests this woman’s core, filled with others like a Russian doll, by kissing the screen. This mix of blood, saliva, and desire–this is sex, and the narrator has devoured countless cores. She too is vulnerable, and decaying, morphing like one of the diseased characters in Charles Burns’ Black Hole. She loses track of the men she sleeps with, and also of herself: “More than once I found myself in the deli of the nearest Safeway going Who the fuck are you? over and over again. Who the fuck is this guy? I asked looking around. Later I found myself under a drunk guy and I was drunk too.” Even the narrative construction and the sense of time collapses towards the end.

The narrator’s dissipation of mind and body are intertwined. She falls asleep along a highway, and when she wakes she notices her “body had been moved several yards down the road. I noticed this only after raising my half-worm-eaten face from the pavement, heavy and winey, glancing back to where I had been several hours/days before.” At another point, too drunk and high to have sex, she naps in a tub, where she “noticed pieces of flesh sloughing off in grey sheets, plunging into sticky bathwater, each dissolving into a layer of ash on the surface of the anonymous liquid.”

This too parallels Black Hole, the illustrations of the woods, where the diseased teenagers’ skin sloughs and hangs from tree limbs. Burns’ characters also live in self-imposed exile in the Pacific Northwest. The teenagers band together after contracting a sexually transmitted disease that causes their skin to shed, their bodies to grow tails and new orifices; they become mutated forms of their previous selves. If Black Hole is a mythology of adolescence in Seattle in the 1970s, then Krilanovich’s book picks up the reins twenty years later, only slightly to the south in central Oregon.

“Every time I breathe out my skin flakes off in a puff of crepe dust, this means my body gets smaller and smaller every time I breathe. Someday I’ll blow away.” The insults on the narrator’s body gradually destroy her, and yet she keeps on. She will keep on until she disintegrates, as all of us will until our bodies break. By the end, Krilanovich’s narrator has encountered and embraced her own personal form of hell, which in its horror also contains a great beauty. Cixous’s book on writing also ends with the idea of disintegration, of writing to one’s death,  of pushing limits until we are destroyed: “We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth.”

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