L. E. Vollick
As it stands, The Originals is gratefully free of literary theory and postmodern gimmicks – just the sort of stuff you’re likely to catch, like social disease, in doctorate programs and creative writing workshops, of which Vollick has attended her share. Somehow, though, she still understands the first rule of solid storytelling: give readers a protagonist they can care about. And with Vollick’s 17-year-old narrator, Magpie Smith – think Anne of Green Gables with blue hair and attitude – there is lots of cause for concern.
Magpie’s father ran out on her when she was little; her mother is a forlorn drunk; her older brothers are attentive enough when they aren’t stoned, but they’re stoned all the time; and her best friend, PK, is a street kid with a bent for existential philosophy. If all that weren’t bad enough, Magpie is convinced the world is about to disappear in a mushroom cloud.
Set about a decade ago, in the dying days of the Cold War, Vollick’s story plays out on the wrong side of the tracks in an unidentified Canadian city where a variety of punks, hustlers, and colourful crazies frequent a dive aptly called the Underground. At first glance, the Underground looks like a safe haven for the novel’s collection of likeable losers, Magpie included. But it gradually becomes clear that no one in the place has the capacity, hard as they try, to look out for themselves, let alone anyone else.
Every generation thinks it’s lost, of course, but Magpie is convinced that her crowd – the so-called Originals – won’t be around long enough to be found. Here’s one of her typical tirades: “I’m starting to think of life as a science experiment, where you’re trying to change lead into gold, but all you do is watch everything else turn to shit.”
The Originals is a hard-hitting and heartfelt debut. Unfortunately, it’s also not much fun to read. Young writers – Vollick is barely thirty – have a tendency to be bleaker than they need to be. Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski were down and out too, but they still seemed to be having a good time. The trouble with The Originals is that Vollick’s stoned characters are a lot like stoned people – boring, in a word. They are constantly laughing at jokes that aren’t funny and spouting wisdom that’s not especially wise.
Initially, I tried to cut Vollick’s characters as much slack as possible, considering the sorry circumstances they’re growing up in, but eventually my bourgeois middle-aged impatience started to kick in. This is also the point at which sociological questions give way to literary ones. Do Magpie and her pals lack resources or imagination? Couldn’t they just sober up and turn in early once in a while? Other simple suggestions: attend school, watch a movie, play Scrabble, take a shower. Whatever, as the kids say.
Near the end of the novel, the wise-beyond-his-years PK, who has disappeared for a long stretch, returns to deliver a message of hope to Magpie and the dead-end gang. It seems he’s been out west, observed some foliage and met some caring adults and he wants Magpie to know that there is a reason to go on, after all. He even uses the word perspective. Well, duh, as the kids also say.
But Magpie, bless her nihilistic heart, isn’t convinced. Say one thing for her: Vollick’s heroine has spunk. We root for her, worry about her, and wish we could ground her until she’s forty or so. But Magpie, a punk Peter Pan, refuses to grow up. PK is kidding himself, she finally decides. There really is no future, no hope. Then, just in case, she takes a shower. mRb