Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of "The Least Trumps" by Elizabeth Hand

Fabulism is a term that has almost faded from the taxonomy of literature.  Rooted in the idea of ‘fairy tale,’ that is, the departure from realism into the fantastic, it is a term that has been largely pushed aside in favor of magic realism.  I would like to go back to it, however, as there are a number of modern fantasists whose works qualify as genre only for the usage of one or two unreal elements—not the multiple intrusions of the surreal or the literary absurd implied by magic realism.  It seems a much better term to describe writers like Mervyn Peake, Andy Duncan, JeffreyFord—writers who are not overtly straying from reality, only hinting at, or touching up what are otherwise works of literary realism.  Another writer who I think perfectly represents the ideal is Elizabeth Hand.  Mimicking reality yet adding one or two elements of the fantastic to enhance the story, her 2002 “The Least Trumps” is a wonderful example.

The novella is the story of Ivy, a young woman born to a successful yet fanciful author of children’s books.  Growing up on an isolated island off the coast of Maine, she takes over the house when her mother moves to an old age facility and converts it into a specialized tattoo parlor.  Called the Lonely House, her exclusive clientele are a mix of former lovers, trusted friends, and repeat customers who appreciate her work.  Possessing a Sartre-esque nausea thinking back on a particularly heart-breaking relationship, visiting her mother at the facility one day brings about an extreme bout of sickness, but is quickly offset by the purchase of an antique deck of tarot cards at a rummage sale.  But what changes the deck holds, even fate cannot know.

I know what the reader is thinking, oh no, tarot cards, yet another urban fantasy stinking of paranormal cheese.  Block this idea from your mind.  “The Least Trumps” never once extends into the cheaper reaches of astrology or prophecy.  Art instead the purpose, Ivy’s talents as a tattooist are the main connection; the vintage work on the cards plays a strong role in the personal introspection and social interaction Ivy is party to.  Feeling, in fact, partially auto-biographical, the catharsis Ivy ultimately experiences due to the cards is so vividly realized one can’t help but wonder whether Hand herself lived through such a moment. 

“The Least Trumps” is a sensual story—not only physically (i.e. the tactile aspects of the art of tattooing), but also in the little details of life.

    “It was a time of day, a time of year, I loved; one of the only times when things still seemed possible to me.  Something about the slant of the late year’s light, the sharp lines between shadows and stones, as though if you slid your hand in there you’d find something unexpected.”

But more than just interaction with setting, Hand uses the physical aspects of body and color to accentuate conversation and reflection, as seen in this memory which troubles Ivy:

    “She just shakes her head.  Her voice begins to break up, swallowed by the harsh buzz of a tattoo machine choking down; her image fragments, hair face eyes breasts tattoos spattering into bits of light, jabs of black and red. The tube is running out of ink.  “That’s not what I mean. You just don’t get it, Ivy. You never happened.  You. Never. Happened.”

In the end, “The Least Trumps” is a text savored at multiple levels. The prose grabs the attention word by word, the plot effortlessly moves forward, Ivy’s story arc is fully empathetic, and the idea of art as catharsis is one that never gets old in the right hands.  (In the right Hand??  I know, I know, boo, bad pun.)  Glinting in the sunlight are bits of the fantastic that enhance the story, making Hand one of the best fabulists writing today.

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