Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When She is Good, She is Very, Very Good: Wasteland

This week's post is partially a response to my friend Sadako, who recently wrote a hilarious send-up of Nymph, a laughably ridic collection of erotica penned by Francesca Lia Block. 

As someone who's read FLB since I was sixteen and discovered Baby Be-Bop (recently banned by a truly ignorant public library, because it is about a GAY BOY, oh no!!!!!!), I fully acknowledge that Ms. Block has penned her share of clunkers.  To be fair, I was never fully in love with Weetzie Bat, probably her best-known work.  Her writing itself has a definite style--chock full of poetic run-on sentences, not to mention faerie girls, hipster boys, punk music and flowers galore--that you will either adore or abhor.  You might feel the need to read Bret Easton Ellis when you are done, just to wash the spun-sugar taste out of your mouth.

But here's why I will defend Francesca Lia Block to my dying day: under all the tripe and treacle, she knows what's important.  Her writing exudes and encourages kindness, tolerance, friendship and love.  She celebrates the fabulousness and explores the challenges of femininity.  She views music and literature as religion.  She reveres beauty, especially what's hidden in the urban environments of New York and L.A.

And one thing about FLB that you must acknowledge, whether you like her stuff or not:

She doesn't shy away from darkness.

Which brings me to my very favorite--and the most controversial--in the Block oeuvre: Wasteland.  As I go on with this review, I ask that you stay with me and keep an open mind.

Because I'll say it right out: I never thought I'd love a book about incest.

Yup, that's right, incest.  The king of ICK.  The depths of fucked up-edness usually associated with trailer trash, alcoholism and Jeff Foxworthy jokes.  Not to mention the saying, "if you can't keep it in the pants, keep it in the family."  Decried as disgusting, wrong and just plain unnatural, because how in the HELL could you fall in love with your own relative?

If you're Lex and Marina, the bro-and-sis protagonists, the answer is: very, very easily.

Don't get me wrong, there are books about incest out there.  Usually, there's violence involved, or at the very least it's not consensual.  Substance abuse and/or a lack of education or exposure to the outside world often plays a part.  Sometimes it stretches into pedophilia, adding on another layer of perversion.  It's always horrible and traumatizing.  And of course, unnatural.

Not (really) the case in Wasteland.  Sure, it's set in the area of SoCal known as the Valley--not perceived as a desirable place to hang one's hat.  However, Lex and Marina come from a fairly well-to-do background, as their mom is a successful realtor.  They're both very intelligent, particularly Lex who is a gifted writer.  They experiment with alcohol and pot, but not to the point of excess.  They like to go to the beach and punk shows, and their friends Michelle and West seem kind and grounded.  Granted, their mom is pretty self-involved and their dad isn't in the picture at all.  They've had to be each other's parents, caregivers and friends as well as siblings.  Each understands the other better than anyone else.

And together, they are a ticking time bomb.

Believe me, I'm not spoiling anything.  Through flashbacks and multiple points of view, the reader figures out pretty quickly that a) something eventually goes down (sorry for the pun), and b) an incredible tragedy ensues.  Even so, Block does an excellent job of building suspense with thriller-like precision.  And even more skillfully, she illustrates the inevitability of the whole incident.  As they become teenagers, Lex and Marina are aware that they're attracted to one another.  Hell, their friend West thought they were a couple when he first met them.  Lex, the older sibling, attempts to distract himself with punk rock and other girls.  Marina, too, knows it's all very, very wrong.  Yet they can't stay away from one another.  (Also, when you live in the same house, and your hormones are raging, it's pretty damn difficult.)

And the weird part is, you kind of root for them.

I'm not all "yay, incest!," believe me.  Which is why I think the book is successful: the only time I really disliked Lex was when he was mean to Marina, which he feels is a necessity to drive her away.  The rest of the time: they're two good kids in the most awkward situation imaginable.  They've also got very little adult guidance--there's Lex's kind English teacher, but you can't exactly blame the guy for not saying, "Hey, um, I'm in love with my sister, what do I do about that?" 

When only one sibling is left to pick up the pieces, I wanted to weep, not only for a young life lost, but for the botched connection in its wake.  It's awful to lose a sibling.  It's awful to lose a lover.  It's awful to lose someone when both of you are extremely young.  Imagine that triple whammy, in the same person.  Yet the book ends on a lovely note of hope, in the form of a message from beyond and the certainty that the survivor will in fact be all right.

And another thing about the ending: it's, um, interesting.  I do wonder if Block had another ending written, but her publisher, concerned about an already-taboo topic being marketed to the young adult genre, made her change it.  I could be paranoid, but I found it just slightly contrived and out of place.  Still works okay, though.  (If you want to comment on the ending, just make sure to indicate that there will be spoilers, thanks!)

Whatever the author's intent, to read Wasteland is to watch a trainwreck going very, very slowly.  But what a tasteful, gorgeously written trainwreck it is.


  1. I need to start reading some FLB. Maybe I'll choose this one to begin with.

    Incest? Eh, It's very difficult to get me to squirm. Though to be fair, I haven't read any Bret Easton Ellis.....

  2. Yeah, this was one of the better ones, I think. Still, for every book I love there are definitely some details that kind of annoy me, but I did like this one.

  3. Nikki--definitely pick this one up! It's also very short and a quick read. Feel free to let me know what you think!

    Sadako--yay, thanks for commenting! Did you also think the ending was contrived, or am I just paranoid?

  4. (Sorry, this is belated--I forgot to check back!) I actually haven't read this book in a long time so I can't really tell you. I'll reread it and get back to you, though. I still have it I think.