The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson
The Chaos: Taint it good
Every kid who'd ever read a comic knew how this was supposed to go; it you got covered in the black skin, you would be evil and have scary teeth, but you'd have bitchin' powers, like super strength. And you would be even hotter and sexier than before. You weren't supposed to end up looking like a five-eight pile of walking rubber doo-doo.
When I cried, the tears were black. [The Chaos, page 195.]
By Nalo Hopkinson
Margaret K. McElderry Books (April 17 2012)
"No way am I sure."
If there is a watchword to Nalo Hopkinson's Young Adult debut, that is it. In a world gone suddenly surreal, nobody can be sure of anything at all.
Perfectly suited to its confused adolescent protagonist and narrator, The Chaos is a story of struggling to come to terms with self in an arbitrary world, one in which reality is as fluid as self-identity and the tropes not only of fantasy and young adult fiction are tossed aside, but those of narrative fiction itself.
How else to explain that The Chaos starts with a dozen pages of exposition, that the fantasy doesn't get going until the novel is 80 pages old, that there is no villain and that the heroine never once fires a gun or swings a blade? (And never mind that said heroine is black, and a Canadian whose tale takes place in Toronto?)
Meet Sojourner "Scotch" Smith, nerdy and athletic, a confused and angry but fundamentally decent 16 year-old bi-racial Canadian girl. At once EveryTeenager, yet very much her own person, Scotch is cocky and insecure, thoughtful and selfish; imaginative and self-absorbed, she is capable of great generosity and almost monstrous cruelty.
Apparently happy and successful at school — good grades and star of her dance team — she lives in constant terror that her status might at any moment be taken from her; she had been labelled a slut by the girls at her previous school and knows from bitter experience how hard it is to remove a scarlet letter once it has been given. She is angry at her parents and secretly planning to move into an apartment with her brother Rich, a budding poet who is painfully insecure himself.
And Scotch has other secrets. First is her spreading skin condition, which is getting harder and harder to hide and is why she has dumped her boyfriend Tafari, much to the confusion of her friends and of Tafari himself.
I pushed the sleeve of my blouse up. The new patch of tar on my wrist was like the others; black, weirdly shiny, slightly raised, a teeny bit sticky [...] I resisted the urge to scrape at the patch of skin. It'd only hurt if I did; I'd found that out long ago. I stopped rubbing, peered at it. Had it spread since last night? Was it edging up onto my hand a little? They did grow. The one on my shoulder had started out as a quarter-sized patch. Now it was bigger than my hand, edging its way around to my armpit, with a little piece of it, like a tributary, heading toward my collarbone. I could never have let Tafari see me like this. [Page 66.]
If you're guessing that Hopkinson had race in mind when she visited upon her bi-racial heroine a nightmare of spreading blackness, so do I. The Chaos is not about race, but almost every aspect of it is informed by race, by the complex web of presumptions and expectations that skin pigmentation (or physical handicap, or sexual orientation — in encounters with examples of both Scotch finds uncomfortable distortions of her own situation) imposes on those whose colour differs from that of the majority around them.
Scotch's second secret is that she might be going crazy. She is haunted by hallucinations of "headless horse men", disembodied and floating apparitions which come and go and which only she can see. She can't ignore the skin problem, but she certainly tries to pretend the hallucinations are nothing to be concerned about.
Side-note from a former Torontonian
The Chaos is a story could have come only from the keyboard of a Canadian writer.
Though a volcano has erupted on its waterfront and all manner of fabulous monsters roam its streets (with all the concomitant death and destruction you would expect), Toronto and its citizens carry on. Coffee shops serve coffee, taxis prowl the streets, and teenage volunteers minister to those even more badly off at a downtown convention centre turned refuge camp.
Even in disaster, Hopkinson's Toronto remains Toronto the Good, and her portrayal of it serves to ground Scotch's apparently anti-climactic adventures in a context the reader can believe really might exist without riots or pogroms or (much) police over-reaction.)
During the first third of the novel, the reader could be forgiven for thinking he was reading a story about a teenage girl slowly going off her rocker. But then a volcano erupts in Lake Ontario, just off-shore from downtown Toronto, and the story takes a surreal left-turn into fantasy.
Suddenly everyone can see the horseless head men. They also see the volcano, the flying houses and the giant birds and the dinosaurs and, and, and ... well, if you've seen the classic Bob Clampett cartoon, "Porky In Wackyland" or any of its myriad descendents, you'll have some idea of what has happened to Scotch's world.
As the volcano erupts, Scotch's brother disappears in an explosion at the bar he had taken her too to see his on-stage debut as a performance artist, and she spends much of the rest of the novel searching for him.
For a few pages it seems as if Hopkinson has finally remembered that a Fantasy is supposed to have a Quest, but as the tale goes on (and it moves fast; The Chaos is a deceptively easy read), we realize Scotch is not a heroine with a Destiny. Her world has fundamentally changed and nothing she or anyone else can do is going to "reboot" it.
Roaming the wounded city, she encounters a witch out of Russian mythology, rescues a phoenix from a frightened hunter and saves her own aunt from drowning, all while being stalked by a "rolling calf", a monster of tarry blackness that is, somehow, associated with the 'taint' upon her skin.
That taint, that growing blackness, comes as close to blatant allegory as Hopkinson lets herself go, but as it works within the logic of the story, the allegory does no harm.
Though she doesn't realize it until after the fact, Scotch's real struggle is not with the rolling calf but with herself, with her own fears of who and what she is. In-story, her battle is a physical one — a fight with a monster on the flanks of a volcano, no less — but its outcome does not set the world to rights. That world has changed irrevocably and its future is a different country in and of which she (and everyone) will have to make a new place.
I don't know if I've managed to do justice to this deceptively complex story, this folk tale in novel's disguise. I haven't mentioned how funny it is, nor how much of a page-turner it is. The Chaos is experimental literature, but it is not literature you need be afraid of. You don't need to "get" every allusion to enjoy the story or get to know the characters and you won't be required to write an essay to explain its allegories when you've closed its covers.
In Sojourner Smith Hopkinson has created a real person, and so her concerns are ours. We care about her brother because she does, and her care echoes through to us through Hopkinson's singular voice — here simplified, filtered as it as through her 16 year-old narrator, but never dumbed-down.
Through a lunatic's delight of a plot that is grounded in a voice whose authenticity can't be denied, Nalo Hopkinson has created a rare thing: a tale that can be enjoyed as adventure, as psychological drama or as (a successful) experiment in literary form — or all three at once.
I've read it twice now, and loved it as much both times; I am as confident as I can be that I would have loved it just as much had I encountered it as a teenager, if for very different reasons.
Buy a copy for that bright kid in your life, but get one for yourself too.
It's that good a book.