The Orange Eats Creeps
By Grace Krilanovich
Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Darby M. Dixon III
This is less a final review and more the beginning of a reading of The Orange Eats Creeps, the strange, excellent debut novel by Grace Krilanovich. This is not intended to seem like a cop-out, but rather the only rational approach to discussing this unique work. The wealth of material at hand invites frantic acts of interpretation, making the reader an active collaborator in creating the story, even as it resists giving in to easy—or hard-won—conclusions. It is a slippery novel. It will never lay still and compromising in your hands, but the harder you hold on to it, the harder it is to hold. In confounding, it rewards: to borrow a line from the book, “It’s only a problem if you make it one.”
The Orange Eats Creeps is narrated by a teenage girl. We do not know her name. She has run away from her foster home in search of her runaway foster sister. The narrator takes up with several guys slightly older than her as they ride the rails of the Pacific Northwest, terrorizing the night-shift employees of convenience stores, attending underground rock shows, doing drugs, and having sex, for fun or for money or against their will.
They are also vampires.
Except they might not be vampires.
It is here it becomes clear that conventional plot summary is of little use. These so-called hobo teenage junkie gypsy-slut vampires may be mere Hot Topic mall-punk vampires, kids dressed in black who talk a big game and spend a suspicious amount of time in sunlight but who never actually do anything. It is also possible they are far more metaphoric, a set of literary tropes broken apart and re-arranged into something new, other. Something tangential to our Walgreens culture, true in its undefinability.
Truth is dubious throughout the book. The narrator’s claim to possess ESP means much of the book reads as bizarre dreams, wild flights of imagination, twisted memories, drug-induced extra-sensory visions, in and out of time. This casts a blur over everything that takes place in the book. The strains of vampirism. The narrator’s friends, who may or may not be asleep the entire time. The lost foster-sister, Kim, who may or may not be dead or a runaway or real or all of the above.
And then we have the Warlock, and the House Mom, and the murderer Dactyl, and the Donner Party, each worth another couple thousand words of discussion. Set them aside for now. Set aside the willful confusion of the facts, and consider the peculiar sliding quality to the prose. It is this that so often intensifies the reader’s feelings of disorientation. Krilanovich frequently mashes together portions of unrelated prose, but does so in a smooth, engaging manner, such that it becomes far too easy to glance past the seams. Paragraphs, sections, chapters that start out feeling so normal can take you some other place without any apparent effort.
Take the beginning of one paragraph:
I see a gas station and a smokestack off in the distance. Smoke has to go somewhere. There’s no use pretending it doesn’t go into the sky... As I walk there’s a piece, a part that’s dangerous, getting more and more loose on my body and it rattles when I walk. Got to get that replaced... We may be aliens who just landed here, but having taken a real good look around it seems like the signs all point to our ancestors having lived in this exact same spot. In fact, just the other day I went up to the graveyard and found a grave with my name on it. It was full though, and had been for 140 years.
Reading prose like this, as it occurs in bursts and spreads across an entire book, one can expect to continuously wonder what was missed, either because it was missing from the page, or because it slid past without being noted. What might seem like stream-of-consciousness becomes something else entirely when taken across a book’s worth of sliding seams. Less a stream of consciousness, more a grocery store of consciousness. From aisle to aisle, shelf to shelf, the contents change—how exactly did I get to the cat food from the adult undergarments?—without us ever not being in the same store. There is always that same unnatural light every step of the way.
Language charges this book. It provides regular reward from one sentence to the next, even as the overarching narrative collapses and dissipates and crashes back down again, sometimes without ever moving. Krilanovich shifts fluidly from abstract meanderings and armchair philosophizing to relatively concrete exposition, all within the singular consciousness of the narrator. Her figurative language stuns, offering hand-holds within the novel and triumphs regardless of it: “The record cracked and popped, the sound of slowly opening a peanut butter sandwich”; “The city smelled like a wet paper bag”; “Oregon beaches are like some space landscape, total unreality.”
Krilanovich also, intentionally or not, drops in a good deal of potential meta-commentary, guideposts or instructions on how the novel might be read. It is, of course, only in keeping with the novel’s mode, and all the more exciting for it, that these instructions are frequently discordant. One moment, at a rock show, “[i]t was clear that something strange was going on.” Another, a mere seven pages later, during an outburst at a diner, “it was getting redundant.” Later, much later, the narrator tells us she tries “to find a way around coming to any conclusions because there aren’t any.”
Which may be about the most true thing that can be said about this novel. It brings to mind such diverse reference points as the squirminess of John Berryman’s Dream Songs and the epic strangeness of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. (Fans of Steve Erickson will find themselves unsurprised to find his endorsement at the front of the book in the form of a three page introduction.) If this book may be said to be “about” anything, it is about some sort of the inconclusiveness of outsideness. “No one notices the negative space around life,” we are told. Yet it is one of the book’s finest feats of meta-contradiction that has us noticing nothing but just that for the duration of our affair with it. Peripheral vision is the strongest sort.