Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Off the Nightstand: The Contortionist's Handbook


I was looking forward to this one, based on the affable recommendation of Sam Sugar and his altruistic campaign to give wider recognition to an amazing novelist, Craig Clevenger. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I can now vouch for Sugar's enthusiasm to promote him.

The Contortionist's Handbook kinda came out of nowhere to me, I read across quite a few genres but can only categorize it somewhere between "good things to know" and "exceptional fiction." The story follows a man who is an expert at changing identities, a skill he puts to use to maintain his preferred lifestyle but more importantly to avoid the life he fears the most. The story is framed by the protagonist's interview with a social worker and weaves through the ins-and-outs of a rightful desire to avoid being declared a threat to oneself. The detail here, as with the whole of the book, is as addictive as the many drugs and neurosis that are exploited. The exposition on what accounts for one's public identity is a handbook in itself. That's not what the book is about, tho, that's just the plot. The book is about a deep, deep desire to stay out of the system-- the one that is in place to keep society in order, but also the one that is waiting, maliciously, to turn against you and destroy your life with no other prompting than the events of one unfortunate day.

I tore through it, one of those "Gosh it's getting late, I should put it down," to "Holy crap it's really late. One more chapter" kind of books. It's short, 200 pages or so, but it is packed to the brim. I mean packed. The book starts off with a clever catch, then it gets weird, then it gets weird, moving to wickedly tense and then keeps it that way. And the ending, dammit, it's brilliant. I read that last page and finished, and loudly vocalized "Asshole!" at four in the morning, cursing the author and flipping through those last pages again to make sure I didn't miss anything. Clevenger is a talented wordsmith, yet not pretentious at all. He covers wide gamuts of bureaucracy, drugs, medication, sex, fetish, love, addiction, fear, family, and the plain, simple reality of his character's life. It's a damn good read.

Get The Contortionist's Handbook, and Clevenger's followup, Dermaphoria, which I have already added to my cue.

While you're at it, visit the man himself, Craig Clevenger.

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