Randy's Reviews > Death Wishing

Death Wishing by Laura Ellen Scott
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's review
Apr 04, 2012

liked it

About a third of the way through my initial reading of Laura Ellen Scott’s Death Wishing, I realized I was probably the wrong person to be reviewing it. Or saying it another way, that I or people like me are not the likely audience for the novel.

It happens occasionally (unavoidably) that a reviewer gets novels that aren’t necessarily bad, that execute more or less what the author intended, but which, for whatever reason, are simply not in the reviewer’s wheelhouse or on his/her wavelength or whatever cliché you’d like to use. In these cases, I tend to see it as my job to put away my scalpel and try my best to examine what the author intended, what she did well and not so well, and recommend (or not) the book to the sorts of people that might like it. Of course, be warned that restraint is not my strongest attribute and that this review may, in fact, be quite digressive and the scalpel may come out anyway. You are what you are, after all.

So, Death Wishing. The novel might be classified as contemporary magic realism or urban fantasy, where the extraordinary mingles with the everyday and creates frothy plot lines. It’s set in post-Katrina New Orleans (a place that could certainly use a little magic and, perhaps, frothy plot lines) and the story centers on middle-aged divorcee, recently downsized, and (yes) corset- and cape-maker Victor Swaim. Victor works in his son Val’s vintage clothing shop and is in love with Pebbles, the neighbor hottie, who is, in turn, infatuated with Val.

They, like everybody else in this alternate world, must enact this love triangle while contending with the titular death wishing, which is exactly what it sounds like. Namely, that on rare occasions a person’s dying wish is granted by some unnamed power and reality is thus forever changed. Often with unintended consequences. For example, at one point, some well-intending person wishes everyone had a thousand dollars and promptly obliterates the net worth of millions of people.

What’s interesting about the novel is that one of its most credible facets is the utter banality of most of the wishes. How trivial they are. Housecats disappear. Clouds turn orange. Elvis comes back. Your coffee mug never empties. It seems likely to me (though I can in no way academically back this up at the moment) that the mind, when death is near, would turn to the small things that fall within the realm of earthly experience rather than large-scale abstractions like ‘world peace.’ Think about it. If you’re on your deathbed, wouldn’t you spend that time examining your own life? Those little, mean grudges you held. The moments of pleasure. Niggling regrets. Deeply personal fantasies.

It helps that Scott’s depiction of post-wishing society is not archly dramatic, but realistic. It brings out the worst in some people--the risibly religions who form ‘death cults’ and the sociopathic morons who think that they can simultaneously threaten to kill and kill somebody in order to get them to wish for them. But by and large, people seem to view the wishes as one more cosmic variable to be accounted for and, for the far-sighted and entrepreneurial, even exploited.

The other real strength of the novel is how well Scott evokes New Orleans, an authentic New Orleans rather than a romanticized one. It’s not just the way she namedrops bars and landmarks like Checkpoint Charlies, Café Brasil, and Woldenberg Park. But how she gets how the city cries out to the despairing and lonely, how it can placate pain with the promise of community and desperate joy. In this instance via the details of a simple walk through the nighttime streets:

The echo and rattle of the night. Doors and trash bins slamming, high heeled clatter on the bricks, and then the two note cry of a woman as she called out: “Loooo-Laaahh.”
I did not know Lola, but I worried for her all the same.
And suddenly I no longer wanted to be alone. I took a turn towards the water, the music, the lights. The all night sad party.

That said, I did take occasional issue with some of the character development and plot points. For instance, Val (young, hungry lothario), Victor (paunchy, middle-aged, vaguely feminine) and Victor’s friend, Martine (gay, a cross between Nathan Lane and Cam Tucker) are fairly well-drawn characters who behave consistently. However, Pebbles is all over the place and seems to act in a manner designed to keep the plot moving rather than in the manner of a young woman named Pebbles (and her actions toward the end of the novel really strained my capacity for willful suspension of disbelief). Further, there’s a whole middle-school-underground-gang thing that develops that I didn’t find particularly believable, either. Or said gang’s thing for capes. Which of course they need from Victor. Who just happens to make capes. Oh, and did I mention that Elvis kills a cloud?

What I’m working toward there, with that last bit, is the fact that when whimsical details like this start accumulating at such an alarming rate, what happens is the contrivances of the novel, the dream world, become overt to me and subsequently subvert the narrative. The best fantasy and magic realism tends to set the fantastic elements firmly within a set of consistent and concrete details and rarely sacrifices character for flights of fancy or plot needs. The alternative is for the writer to close one eye and assume his/her best postmodern ironic wink and take everything to its absurd extremes. To waffle in the middle like this tends to leave the reader trudging halfheartedly through the story wondering if the author is putting them on.

Or not. This is why I might very well be the wrong person to review this book. I have a preternatural distaste for novels slathered with whimsy. I distrust them. I’ve read too many writers who rev up their plots with whimsy in order to cover up their weaknesses To be honest, I feel that way here.

It’s a shame because under all this folderol is a novel that’s got something to say about the human condition, that even in the face of the fantastic, we’re still only working with the reality we know. Our dreams are, in fact, only mirrors; our wishes only extensions of our earthly desires. Take this passage describing alien bodies wished into existence at Roswell:

Upon dissection, we learned that every detail of alien physiognomy had already been imagined by scientists, artists, writers, etc. It was all very exciting, but ultimately there was nothing to be learned from hundreds of copies of an all too generalized ideal. The aliens didn’t come from anywhere, and they couldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. They were the perfect ambassadors of our limits.

It’s a lovely and thoughtful paragraph, the observation as astute as it is concise. Indeed, the redemptive quality of the novel is that is sprent with erumpent passages like this. Beneath the fluff there is a steely intelligence. Even Elvis shooting a cloud is saying something about the self-destructive nature of our pop culture obsessions.

So, the verdict? Let me just say that if you are the sort of person that likes whimsy, that likes all these overheated details and gewgaws and froo-froos and a firmly resolved storyline. And if you don’t mind an undercooked character principle character or two so long as the plot is snappy. Then, brother, this book is probably better and smarter than what you’re used to. But if you’re someone who is well-versed in high-end postmodern fiction and magic realism, you may find it underwhelming.
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