An Orphan World is written in a tone that I would call playful, absurd, post-modern, and surreal. The story itself, on the other hand, is ugly, violent, and extreme. Tone and story clash jarringly for me here, making this a difficult book for me to interpret. The novel reminds me a great deal of Chilean-French director’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 2013 film “The Dance of Reality,” for the way it combines fantastic absurdity with horrific reality. It’s not a comfortable combination for me as a reader. So this novel is going on my “reread” list, because I feel like I didn’t understand it, and also, that it deserves a more open-hearted reading next time, when I’ll know what to expect.
In some places the scenic renderings are so visceral, and so full of smell and touch and need, that I had that delightful feeling as I read along that we readers get sometimes, too rarely, when we read something unlike anything we’ve read before. There is a father and son in this story who show their love for one another in goofy and particular and touching ways. The sea in this story offers up clocks that still work. A kelp-festooned couch on the beach becomes an absurd and effective representation of the poverty of the main characters. The writing throughout is poetic and pleasingly cryptic, with the exception of a passage that seems meant to bore me, as it demonstrates at length the inanity and emptiness of online sex.
While the story’s thematic undercurrent is serious—homophobic violence, and the degradations of poverty — the tone is so detached and absurd that these serious themes disturb me and unsettle me and distance me from the horrors. I felt little emotion as I read other than delight about the prose, and curiosity and puzzlement and occasional boredom about the story itself, especially when it turned to these darker themes. The second chapter, for instance, describes bodies after a horrific mass lynching. The bodies have been mutilated in what should have struck me as revolting ways, but the tone is so detached and absurd that my feeling was muted.
Maybe that was the point. Lately I’ve been having conversations elsewhere on GR about the way a writer might choose flat affectless prose to get to the truth of horrific themes, rather than trying to amp up the reader’s empathy artificially by writing emotionally. Colson Whitehead in The Nickel Boys for instance writes in a flat tone when describing the most horrific of realities in his novel. The tonal detachment here, though, was in the direction of a exaggerated surrealism, and not in the direction of trying to render a reality that allows readers to experience their own emotions. It will take some acclimation and hence my plan to read this novel again.