Thursday, April 19, 2012

Finding a Self Within the Chaos

Nalo Hopkinson is one of the people who taught me how to write. She was one of my instructors at Clarion. Everything I know about how to physically embody a character on a page comes from her. I feel lucky to call her my mentor, and fortunate to call her my friend. I say this by means of disclosure, so that you know I am not a neutral reader of her work.

I also say that so that perhaps it doesn’t sound so strange when I tell you that my favorite character in Nalo’s new – and deeply impressive book – The Chaos, is a house.

Izbouchka, the chicken-legged, bigger-on-the-inside, house of Baba Yaga.

In Hopkinson’s hands, the house has a real personality. Like this, from Scotch’s first meeting with it: “I could see all that from underneath because it had tilted down at a steep angle so it could see me better. I mean, I think it was looking. The house part cocked itself sideways so that one of its windows was facing me. I swear, the window blinked, its pane slamming open and shut like a big, square, startled eye.”

But it isn’t just Izbouchka that has a real personality. So do all of Hopkinson’s characters – they are real, and vibrant, with voice and attitude and feelings. Scotch and her brother Rich, her Aunt Mryss, her friends Ben and Gloria, they are people, fully formed on the page. The reality of the people, with their regular concerns about relationships, and an upcoming dance battle, and performing at open mic night at a local bar serve as a solid foundation to ground the story with when things get weird.

And they do. The Chaos comes to Toronto, and weird is only the beginning of it.

The best way I can describe The Chaos is to say that when it happens, living through it is like living inside of a surrealist painting. There is a spontaneous volcano in Lake Ontario. A UPS delivery person becomes a lavender hippopotamus wearing a party hat. Baba Yaga and Izbouchka show up for a visit. Sasquatch rumbles down the street. Yet the strangeness of these details never overwhelms the people in the story. In fact, as everything becomes surreal, Scotch finds out a lot about who people really are.

There is so much going on in The Chaos, it is hard to believe that it is only 241 pages. Hopkinson addresses – in meaningful ways – what it means to have an identity, and whether you choose your own or have one chosen for you.  There are the perils and joys of high school. There is mythology and storytelling, dance and poetry. There is a house with a mind of its own, that, in a mirror of “there’s no place like home,” comes when called. And there is a wonderful story, which I highly recommend you read.