Trash Sex Magic
is Jennifer Stevenson's first novel. I finished it earlier this week, and have been mulling it over since then. My opinion of it is taking time to settle. In part, that's because it's a tricky book to describe.
It's not long, but it's very busy, sometimes to the point of being crowded; the cast is large, and they do a lot. The central characters are Raedawn Somershoe and her mother, Gelia, living in a trailer on the banks of the Fox creek Around them are a constellation of relatives and neighbours. As the novel opens, a large tree has been felled by the property developers setting up shop across the road, initiating a conflict that for a while simmers, and towards the end of the novel boils over.
It's fantasy, of the sort where magic is wild and unexplained, yet accepted as part of everyday life. If it was a less brash and zesty book, it might be tempting to describe it as magic realism. The magic comes from nature, from changing seasons--there's an air of folklore about the book, of the stories in which an injustice is done to the land and must be set right--and also, per the title, from sex. Both Rae and her mother are powerful witches, and astonishingly beautiful, and they express their power through sex. There is almost nobody in their community that at least one of them, and possibly both of them, have not slept with at some point; and their couplings punctuate the book, sometimes intense, sometimes casual, often healthy or healing. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the sex magic and the nature magic are, in fact, the same thing: the tree that was cut down was lover to both Gelia and Rae, we learn, and in his absence something is out of balance.
Although there is a great deal of incident, there is little plot in the traditional sense. Events are driven by encounters and conversations. The community and the property developers are in conflict, but there's no sense that either side is really planning their next move. The situation evolves organically. Subplots proliferate, and not neatly, which suits the book but is often less than satisfying. A number of the characters feel thinly drawn, more pawns than players. At least as many, though, are vivid, particularly the ragged twins Mink and Ink, Alexander (a construction worker), and of course Rae and her mother. At one point towards the end of the novel Alexander muses of the Somershoes that "Both of these women were too big. Too big to hold in your mind at one time--how could they be friends, or live in the same house? His head hurt trying to imagine it." (291) It's an accurate description.
There are two aspects of the book in particular that I cannot make up my mind about. The first is Rae herself. She is a bold, alluring young woman by any standard, very much in charge of her life and her sexuality. But her sexuality also defines her. Everything she does, she does by choice, but what she chooses to do is often to heal men through sex. And if, as we come to suspect, her lover is to be replaced, and a new tree grows, by extension she will heal the world. This should feel huge, and triumphant, and sometimes it does; but sometimes it seems oddly passive (it just happens
rather than being Rae's choice; I'm not sure I ever got a clear sense of what Rae wants for herself alone, or whether there is any such thing at all) and sometimes strangely limited, that the only
way Rae can help the world is through sex. This could be a deliberate comment on Stevenson's part--for the most part she is admirably non-judgemental about her characters, but perhaps Rae is meant to be trapped by her sexual nature?--but I'm not sure it feels like it.
The second aspect is related to the somewhat haphazard feel the whole affair carries. Trash Sex Magic
is an appealingly messy book, but the flipside of that is that at times it is patchy. Some chapters seemed dull or overly cliche (the property developers never become much more than bad guys), but then there will be paragraphs or pages of astonishing writing, full of original imagery and beautiful insights into human nature and relationships. More often than not, these sections are precipitated by some magical incident, and this is where my frustration comes in. On the Small Beer website there's an interview
with Stevenson, one quote from which probably explains why:
I felt that in fiction, magic ought to be treated with more respect, and not as a game whose rules must have "internal consistency"--a fantasy lit-crit phrase that drove me nuts for years--but as an extension of the mysterious and marvelous and very real natural world.
I have an instant adverse reaction to this sort of statement; it is not how I think. Certainly the natural world is
mysterious and marvelous, but I don't believe it is--as I think Stevenson is suggesting--fundamentally inexplicable. And more importantly, I'm not convinced that that god, or nature, moving in mysterious ways makes for good fiction. Asking the reader to infer meaning is one thing--a feeling of uncertainty, that there are things we don't or can't know, is compelling--but there needs to be (or I need) a sense that there is something to be inferred. Sometimes Trash Sex Magic
achieves that, but sometimes it doesn't, and I think that's because it's ever so slightly on the wrong side of the fine line between careful deployment of strangeness, and arbitrary incident.
These reservations aside, there is a great deal to like. The material Stevenson deals with could easily have become fey or twee, but she tells it with passion and power; and though on some levels the central conflict is undeniably cliche, it is told in a raw and exciting manner. There are books it's almost as much fun to disagree with as it might be to agree with; and this is one of them.
Jessa Crispin at Bookslut
Sherwood Smith at the SF Site
Wes Unruh at Green Man Review