Southern Gothic Delight: A Density of Souls

A Review of A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

Pan Books, 2000

A Density of Souls Christopher Rice

by REBECCA, February 6, 2013

characters

Stephen Conlin: Branded “FAG” at the start of high school, Stephen is a tough cookie!

Meredith Ducote: Stephen’s former best friend who turns popular mean girl (for a little while) but has troubles of her own

Greg Darby & Brandon Charbonnet: Stephen and Meredith’s childhood friends made villainous by age

Jordan Charbonnet: declared too perfect for his own good by a college girlfriend, Jordan and Stephen make an unlikely couple

hook

Once, as kids, Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon were inseparable, playing on the streets of their New Orleans neighborhood. As they start high school, though, Greg and Brandon become popular football players, Meredith becomes part of the in-crowd, and Stephen is bullied for being gay by people at school, including his ex-friends. Five years later, after high school, Stephen has a new life and hasn’t spoken to Meredith, Greg, and Brandon in years. When a shocking explosion kills multiple people in a New Orleans club and a series of violent events unfold, the former friends find themselves forced back into each other’s lives.

worldview

Lafayette CemeteryOh, Southern gothic, I love you so! I first read A Density of Souls when it first came out in 2000, which was my senior year of high school. I’d never been to New Orleans at the time and—I can’t lie to you, friends—really I only picked it up because Christopher Rice is Anne Rice‘s son and I was curious about what craziness Anne Rice’s kid would spew out. But, though I picked it up with impure intentions, I loved A Density of Souls within the first ten pages. I am such a sucker for a story about intense childhood friendships that go awry, and these friendships definitely go awry.

Stephen is the main character, here, though we get chunks of others’ stories (including Stephen’s mom as a young girl). After high school, Stephen lives with his mom (his dad killed himself years ago), goes to school, and has begun dating. He’s made a life for himself despite being tormented in high school. One night Stephen is at a bar with a friend when someone blows it up. As if shit’s not hard enough, right Stephen!? Anyhoo, this act sets into motion a series of events that brings Meredith back into Stephen’s life and introduces Stephen to Jordon Charbonnet (such great New Orleans-y last names!), Brandon’s older brother and bona fide overly-attractive person.

New OrleansThe tone of A Density of Souls is what I most appreciate about it. When I say it’s a Southern gothic, I mean more in the Truman Capote sense than in the William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor senses of things. That is, this isn’t a gloomy, sinister creepshow. Its Southern gothicness is subtle—more about manners, pathos, and family secrets, drippy trees and dirty water. And it’s delightful. I think a lot of people would put Christopher Rice in the “guilty pleasure” camp, in that his writing is . . . unapologetically lush. But I think it’s beautiful, as long as you like that sort of thing. I mean, I hate to make the comparison, but in a way, his descriptions of New Orleans do really remind me of mommy Rice a bit, in that they caress a New Orleans that they both obviously love.

“Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground. The four of them flew down Chestnut Street, their wheels bouncing over flagstones wrenched by the gnarled roots of oak trees. They passed high wrought-iron fences beyond which Doric and Ionic columns held up the façades of Greek Revival mansions, their screened porches shrouded in tangles of vines” (3).

what was this book’s intention? did it live up to it?

Christopher Rice (and I say this having read all of his books except his most recent, which, frankly, looks uninteresting to me) is fascinated by writing about the way the secrets we protect most fiercely have a way of erupting into our relationships and either ruining them or strengthening them. His thesis across four books seems to be that if a relationship is worth anything then it can absorb your deepest, darkest secrets, and if it crumples under their weight then it wasn’t worth much to begin with. I feel pretty comfortable endorsing that calculus. Right? Anyhoo, A Density of Souls is a story about the different ways those secrets affect the relationships in Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon’s lives.

Rice is a legitimately good writer, and his evocation of interpersonal dynamics in only a few lines of dialogue works particularly well for this book, which is pretty short and manages to tell a number of stories, but isn’t at all dense. In that way, it is very un-Anne-Rice-esque and reminds me more of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s or something.

“After three weeks of seing each other, at just the moment when Stephen felt he had written enough love poetry to hand Devon a stack of messy loose-leaf pages, Devon showed up at his house one afternoon and announced that Stephen was a ‘cold, emotionally withdrawn person suffering from only-child syndrome,’ and their relationship was over. He offered evidence. ‘A week ago we went to see a movie. Before the movie you purchased a pack of Dots. You consumed the entire pack without offering me any. In the middle of the movie, I rose and went to purchase my own pack. When I sat down, the first thing you asked me was, “Can I have some Dots?”‘

Devon paused, allowing his indictment to settle over Stephen. In response, Stephen picked up a copy of Reports from the Holocaust by Larry Kramer off the nightstand and hurled it at Devon’s head. . . . Stephen received a memo printed on the stationary of the Tulane University administrative office where Devon was working part-time. RE: Your Emotional Issues . . .

Stephen did not call Devon. Instead, he delivered a case of Dots to the door of Devon’s dorm room” (114-115).

DotsAll the interconnections among people strengthen the feeling that Rice evokes of an inescapably, at times claustrophobically, tight-knit Garden District, and sets the scene well for the backstories of Stephen’s mother and the Charbonnet family.

A Density of Souls is great story-telling against the well-wrought backdrop of contemporary New Orleans. I made my mother read it when we were in New Orleans together a few years ago (you know, for thematic resonance) and she really enjoyed it, too. So, there you have it: an intergenerational two thumbs up!

readalikes

The Snow Garden Christopher Rice

The Snow Garden by Christopher Rice (2002). The Snow Garden is Rice’s second novel and I really like it also. Set on a college campus, two close friends realize that although they were immediately drawn together they each have reinvented themselves in an attempt to leave dark pasts behind. When a professor’s wife dies in a car accident one night, it threatens to expose an intricate web of lies that has captured both friends.

The Secret History Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Mysterious Skin Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (1995). A beautiful, intense book about what it means to excavate your own secrets, especially when you’ve hidden them from yourself. Awesome movie adaptation by Gregg Araki, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

procured from: bought, long ago

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Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, (2012)

By REBECCA, July 23, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Beasts of the Southern Wild for months, now, and I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.

The film is based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 5 when she auditioned, and beat out thousands of other Louisiana locals) lives with her father, Wink, on a Louisiana island called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levy. Hushpuppy’s mother left years before, and her father (played by Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who happened to own the bakery next to the casting offices where director Behn Zeitlin often bought bread) is ill and drinks all the time. When violent storms threaten to flood The Bathtub, many locals pack up and head out, leaving a small cadre behind, who have to survive in the wake of the flood, which kills animals and plants, and floods their homes.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and the AurochsHushpuppy narrates the film and both the script and Wallis’ performance are haunting in their emotion and simplicity, as is Dan Romer’s score, which reviewers have compared to a kind of stripped-down Arcade Fire. Guided by her voiceover, we experience the events of the film through Hushpuppy’s eyes: after her teacher tells the children about the aurochs, great beasts trapped under the ice, Hushpuppy incorporates the aurochs into the landscape of The Bathtub, finally identifying as a beast herself in sympathy with them; when Hushpuppy hits her father, we see him fall down, as if the fury and hatred she feels toward him actually have the power to slay him. Beasts is magical realism, then, inasmuch as Hushpuppy’s reality is our access point to this world.

Waterworld Kevin Costner

Waterworld

More interesting, though, are particularities of the film that aren’t magical but are composed from a hodgepodge that seems almost post-apocalyptic: Hushpuppy and Wink putter through the floodwaters in a boat made out of the bed of a blue pickup truck atop floaters, grabbing fish straight from the water for food; they live in ramshackle huts that appear to be constructed of layer upon layer of detritus gathered from their surroundings; in the evenings, they drink and socialize with the other denizens of The Bathtub, eating crabs, shrimp, and crawfish by the bucketful and knocking back liquor as the waters lap their feet.

Despite its overwhelming critical success (it won this year’s Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance) Beasts of the Southern Wild has been criticized for what some see as a kind of cultural tourism in which the lives of poor Southerners are exoticized and made magic, rendering them curiosities instead of complex characters. While I recognize the impulse behind this critique, I found the film’s genre—a kind of magical realism meets regional adventure piece—to argue against it. Rather than using Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other inhabitants of The Bathtub to generalize about a group of rural Southerners, Beasts uses the intricacies of the region itself to portray one particular coming of age story. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy works to make her personal mark and archive her existence, drawing her story on the wall of her cardboard box hiding place and speaking it to us in the voiceover: “In a million years,” she tells us, “when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and WinkSimilarly, Beasts has also been held up as an example of a director aestheticizing poverty, as the film finds exquisite beauty in scenes dominated by dirty, broken places, and muddy, hungry people. This critique is by no means a new one, and rests, it seems, on the troubling assumption that just because a place is poor it is necessarily immune to beauty. Further, this critique seems to reveal an anxiety on the part of viewers that they might find the suffering of others beautiful, be it Wink’s ever-further protruding cheekbones that catch the dim light like a wood carving in Beasts, or those of the concentration camp prisoners in Schindler’s List. Rather, the cameras of Beasts’ director and cinematographer seem to unfailingly find precisely the beauty of The Bathtub and its inhabitants that makes Wink and the others who stay cling so ardently to their home, despite the attempts of all forces to drive them from it. It is beauty, yes, but a fierce and treacherous beauty that betrays all attempts to control it—a sublime beauty, like the cleaving of the immense glaciers that Hushpuppy imagines frees the aurochs from their icy prisons.

Beasts of the Southern WildNot tourism, then, nor aestheticization, but a kind of joyful tramp—as only children can—through the mud connecting Hushpuppy’s home, her school, a much-maligned rescue center, and a floating paradise of catfish and women that brings Hushpuppy a kind of peace, finally allowing her to return to The Bathtub on her own terms rather than her father’s, a pack of fierce and loving girlfriends around her.

At its most explicit, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critique of the institutionalized blindness to the populations of certain regions and the hypocrisy of rescue-efforts that value the lives they would choose for those people over the lives those people choose for themselves. More subtly, though, it’s a story of how we make our own homes and our own histories despite—or perhaps because of—the attempts to obliterate them. Does it have moments of sentimentality? Yes. Echoes of other films with innocent or young protagonists? Sure. But Beasts is very much its own movie. I highly recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild, whether you’re in it for its politics, its story, its beauty, or its characters.

 

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