Cormac McCarthy wrote us the great post-nuclear apocalypse. The Road’s ironic hopelessness spreads dull pain, with the mysteriousness of an unknown illness, through the paper-thin incantations of secular faith: you have to keep going, you carry the light. McCarthy made atom bombs look utopian. It really was better to burn out than to fade away.
If The Road is the dying sigh of an old generation with only the bitter shadow of a hope, then The Orange Eats Creeps is one of its feral prodigy. Shortlisted for the Independent Bookseller’s Choice award, Grace Krilanovich’s debut novel has been held up as if it is some sort of light in the distance. ‘If a new literature is at hand, then it might well begin here,’ slathers Steve Erickson in the introduction. ‘Here is a book that insists on its glorious disarray, that finds in disorder a ravishing path to truth.’
Such praise is so exaggerated, it pretty much dooms the reader to be disappointed in the book itself. But more intriguingly, as I read, it started to seem like maybe this was all part of the game. The Orange Eats Creeps is a litany of teenage hyperbole. For the self-deceiving, self-aggrandising narrator, taboo-defying extremes are common, if clumsily forged, currency.
‘What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.’
The whimsical, sado-masochistic fantasy of her narration, the particular attention she pays to each new obscenity, jars with the utter blankness of her world. It is a blankness that fits easily into the post-apocalyptic aesthetic. But the wasteland through which her gang slouches is – she sometimes hints – none other than the contemporary US, complete with ‘half-blown-out signs for supermarket chains in strip malls featuring exactly one nail place, one juice-slash-coffee place, and one freshmex-type grill chain restaurant.’
Krilanovich’s eschatology comes via George Romero: her vampires, her ‘blood-hungry teenagers’ are the mutant spawn of his consumerist zombies. Her post-apocalypse need not be set anywhere but in the real world. What could be bleaker? The marxist theorist Evan Calder Williams writes of a ‘combined and uneven apocalypse.’ We can no longer expect the world to end in a bang. It ends like this, in a perpetual kaleidoscope of crisis, disaster, exploitation and resistance.
The Orange Eats Creeps throws its clichéd socio-sexual rebellion around exuberantly, but with an ambivalence central, I think, to the teenage experience.
Krilanovich achieves a scalpel-cold parody of romantic nihilism, that matches McCarthy’s immolation of spirituality, ‘My jaw unhinged, my throat was thrown open and made to replicate exactly the form of a glass bottle with a rubber seal. Love poured inside. My heart got bigger and bigger until it threatened to explode.’
This is a novel about loss and yearning as much as it is about oblivious anarchy. Krilanovich does manage to add something to the vampire metaphor, by asking questions that we have all asked: what does it mean to be alive? Am I living yet? Is this it? Undeadness is an apt concept for people dispossessed and disappointed by life; and growing up can feel a lot like the end of the world.