Jason Pettus's Reviews > solo/down

solo/down by Lauryn Allison Lewis
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Feb 24, 14

bookshelves: contemporary, weird, dark, horror, hipster, smart-nerdy, personal-favorite, subversive
Read in April, 2012

FTC DISCLOSURE: I am the publisher of this book.

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

APOLOGIA: A deliberately all-positive, consciously biased critical essay, usually written to convince others to believe a certain way

To understand in a nutshell what I like so much about Chicago author Lauryn Allison Lewis's work, let me relate a little story about her that I'm sure she doesn't like me repeating -- that when we were first putting the promotional material together for her new novella with the center, the apocalyptic fairytale solo/down, she admitted that she was uncomfortable with me comparing it to a David-Cronenberg-style "body horror" tale, in that she's hardly read any books that usually fit that definition and frankly isn't much of a fan of the horror genre in general. But it's precisely because Lewis doesn't read much horror that solo/down works so well as a unique and unexpected horror story, a statement that can be applied to her writing in general; that in her determination to carve a niche out for herself and her idiosyncratic writing style, she often does a great job at accidentally churning out really original genre tales too, even while already in her young career strongly following the tradition of people like J.G. Ballard and Thomas Pynchon in creating literally a one-person genre for herself. (In fact, if I hold real still, I can already hear the stoned undergraduates of twenty years from now, calling their classmate's new piece very "Lewisian.")

Certainly this was on display in Lewis's more experimental self-published 2011 chapbook The Beauties (coming out next year in full novel form by our pals at Silverthought Press), the Chicago hipster must-have of last summer which made such a splash among the local literary community; but here with solo/down she's trying something a little different, not exactly following the rules of a certain trope but at least seeing if she can work within the universe of certain tropes, most notably the mad scientist story. Because that's ultimately what this is, buried under all the complexities we'll get to in a bit, the sociopathic scientist in question fueled more and more in this direction because of a hazy, ill-defined apocalyptic moment that has happened before our story opens, an unnamed series of events that has left acid in the rain, too much junk in the clouds for plants to get adequate sun, and a swarm of semi-intelligent "battle bugs" that have devastated America's crops. Our bleeding-edge botanist Amse, then, along with her doting assistant Jin, are recruited or perhaps kidnapped by a shadowy organization (maybe the government? maybe a private corporation?) and placed alone in a crumbling former 300-employee vaccine-making compound from the 1930s in the middle of nowhere, charged with conducting unholy experiments in combining plant and insect DNA to produce crops that can violently defend themselves against attackers.

It's here where the "body" part of our body-horror tale kicks in; because after deciding that she wants to experience for herself the ultimate alchemistic act -- pregnancy -- and after having Jin artificially inseminate her, a lab accident ends up mixing together this hybrid DNA with the now twin embryos in her womb. And while I'll leave the rest of the complicated series of events a surprise, let's say that Lewis gets a lot of mileage out of very cleverly exploring what is usually the cliche of the "evil twin," and that there's a level of blood and disaster at the end that will keep even the most fervent Fangoria reader happy. But then, let's not forget that an entire two-thirds of this story is not about this but something else entirely; the mysterious Solo, that is, not quite an angel and not quite a demon, not exactly benevolent but not exactly malevolent either, and the magical, mystical, explanation-defying things that happen when it decides to get involved with our dysfunctional little family and the increasing amount of danger they're facing.

That's what makes Lewis's work such a challenge sometimes to edit but always such a pleasure to read, is that she refuses to ever take the easy way out; everything from her plots to her characters and even themes are always big, messy, chaotic, and not proscribing to the usual rules of either a particular genre or even the three-act structure in general. I saw all of these things in The Beauties, which is why I commissioned her a year ago to write the brand-new piece that would eventually become solo/down; but in this case I was particularly interested in building some tighter walls around that explosive creativity of hers, under the belief that something interesting would inevitably come from the process. I like to believe that something has, and I hope that you will grow to feel so too, and to eventually see this book as I do, as one of the most unique titles that CCLaP has ever put out and bound to be strongly remembered for a long time by all who read it. If you haven't downloaded a free copy for yourself yet, I encourage you to do so as soon as you have a chance.
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