Book: Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
Author: Kirsten Alene
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Bizarro, fish, barrel
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Ahh… Hump day for Bizarro Week. Before I discuss the book, let’s get the business out of the way. I am giving away a copy of this book and all you have to do to enter the drawing for the book is leave me a comment on this entry. The contest runs through 9:00 pm CST today, 2/16/11. Just comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing to win a copy of this book. Easy as using a keyboard to type a name.
Now for the book discussion. Before I say anything about Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, I have no idea if the title is a play on Love in the Time of Cholera or if the book in any way mirrors what I can only assume is a literary masterpiece. I can only assume because I’ve tried before several times to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and just couldn’t do it. I hate to admit that I may, in fact, lack a certain gravitas where my literary tastes are concerned but hey, I’m a grad school dropout. So, I may be missing out on an excellent chance to compare a bizarro text to a traditional literary text but I’m not gonna rush out and read Marquez any time soon just to make sure. This will not be the first time my intellectual laziness works against me so instead I’ll just play to my strengths.
Love in the Time of the Dinosaurs mines familiar veins. A soldier in a terrible war falls in love with a woman across enemy lines. A man falls in love with a woman from another culture and the couple faces incredible odds. And there is always some sort of commonality in tales of warfare. But within these familiar tropes, Alene lets loose with some incredible scenes of carnage set in a genuinely bizarro world wholly unlike our own, which only stands to reason because unless one subscribes to really fundamentalist beliefs about dinosaurs as antediluvian animals that died when it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, dinosaurs and humans generally only occupy the same turf in Sid and Marty Krofft productions.
The bare bones of the plot, without excessive spoilerage, are as follows: A monk, whose name we never learn, is also a soldier in a war against the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, whom the monks refer to as Jeremy, came as a sort of plague when a mystical creature went into hiding. These creatures, called the Steve by the head monk, are of varied descriptions, among them fish-headed, winged cats and rhinos with rat heads. The Steve had many secrets and taught the head monk Zohar but when the dinosaurs came, the Steve left. And then the war with the dinosaurs began, with the monks acting as soldiers, trying to keep their walled-in monastery safe from the rampaging dinosaurs, who work together as a tactical army to defeat the monks. Alene’s unnamed monk manages to stay alive long enough to meet Petunia, a new breed of dinosaur, and he falls in love with her. Once his fellow monks clue into the purpose behind his solo visits into the forest, they threaten the love that has come to sustain the monk. Can the monk and Petunia survive the warfare around them? Will they be forced to choose sides? Not gonna tell you, of course.
God, I beat the same two drums where bizarro is concerned. I bitch endlessly about the editing, and that was not a real problem with this book. But I also bitch about the brevity and in this case, I really think this book needed to be about three times as long. At least. Alene created a richly textured other-world, with strange monks with odd traditions. She created an entire, organized dinosaur culture that splinters off into factions. In her world, strange magic taught from the Steve permits men with their bodies blown off from the center of their sternums to live, with a single leg transplanted where their lower viscera and limbs used to be. This is one of the longer books in the New Bizarro Authors Series but man, I needed more. I needed more scenes with the monk and Petunia. I needed more interactions between the monk and the other monks. I needed more scenes within the monastery. Alene is a fine writer and I wished I could have read the complexities of the relationships between the monks and between the monk and Petunia because I sense in her hands, this alternate universe would have rivaled the worlds created by accomplished fantasy and science fiction writers. What was excellent characterization could have been far richer with more length.
And the characterization, even in minor characters, was excellent. The unnamed monk telegraphs early on that he is not of a hivemind with the other humans. Saving his fellow monk Oomka, the monk catches a ride on the back of a pterodactyl and the ride is killing the creature:
Wet tears stream from the eyes of the pterodactyl. I feel an unwelcome surge of compassion and pity, and draw the ray gun back from its temple. Its body quakes feebly as its torn wing flaps at double speed under the extra weight of Oomka and me.
Our bodies shoot through the air toward the treetops. This is the end. The Jeremy is dead, or will be in a few seconds when it hits the ground. I feel a surge of pity and compassion for the animal and try to shake this strange feeling from my head, not wanting to die mourning the fate of my enemy.
The monk does not die, but that what he thinks may be his final thoughts are compassion for the creature he killed in his quest to save his own life illuminates a lot about the monk and it would have been nice had Alene more space to develop these matters of character. The small amount of space made some of it feel rushed.
The romance between the monk and Petunia also suffers from being compressed, if only because Alene presents a compelling tableau: a monk sick of war, dreaming of comfort with his new love, dreaming of a life he can, in fact, only dream about because reality will not permit it. During a scene where the monk loses an arm and almost his life, in the place between life and death he thinks of Petunia:
I feel a tug on my arm and look down to see Petunia reaching up into the sky. Her hand is wrapped around mine. She is pulling me down. I am in her arms. I feel as if a bluish-gray cloud has encased me.
Petunia is very old as well. She is stooped, her soft leathery skin wrinkled and pockmarked. She smiles warmly at me. Her face is familiar and comforting. I am in her arms, and she walks with me toward a house in the tree rocks. Above us, the fireflies are beginning to descend, one by one, until they fall in a torrent, a deluge of fireflies. They swirl through the air as I push the door open in front of Petunia. We enter our house.
So do the fireflies.
If you read this book and this scene does not make you feel like you sort of want to tear up, all I can say is fuck you because such deceptively simple writing affected me. I know, I know, he’s a monk in an alternate universe and she’s a dinosaur. But he’s dreaming of growing old with his beloved and living in a house with her where fireflies come and go. This is on page 46. Think of what Alene could have done had this book been far longer.
One thing Alene does not skimp on is violence. Horrifying scenes of blood, gore, and unseemly inhuman recreations of body parts should be at stark contrast with scenes of monk and dinosaur growing old together with fireflies but they aren’t. Alene’s simple, spare style lends itself will to both sentimentality and extreme violence and gore. The monk and Oomka are in a tree on watch and battling raptors:
I yell and swing my ray gun around, but it is too late. The monster has withdrawn into the leaves, taking the bottom half of Oomka with it. The top half of Oomka looks at me, his yellow eyes bulging as fluid and blood pour from the remaining half of his torso. Two exposed ribs dangle below a line of jagged flesh. Organs spill out over the tree limb, coating the branches beneath in vivid red. He coughs, and a mouthful of blood trickles down his chin, staining the front of his orange robes.
Never fear, however, because losing the bottom two thirds of his body does not spell the end for Oomka. That scene I quote above where he and the monk are on the back of a pterodactyl and they fear they will die along with the Jeremy when they hit the ground? As they fall, Oomka saves the day in a nasty but inventive manner:
Oomka turns himself around so that his back is against my chest, and he rips open his ribcage. His hollow body cavity acts as a parachute, slowing our speed dramatically. We coast toward the trees and drop slowly through the canopy, unharmed.
Much more blood is shed in this book. If you like bloody battles in a surreal setting, guerrilla warfare with dinosaurs, Alene has got you covered.
I will tell you with brutal honesty that part of the reason I loved this book is because Alene’s style reminds me of my own, back in the days when I tried to write. She has a spare, concise manner of word usage that conveys a lot of imagery without straying into being overly descriptive. I had to fill in a lot of mental blanks as to what things looked like and I prefer my fiction that way. She gives what is needed to get her idea across and nothing more, and that she conveys such vivid ideas with such sparse word usage speaks of a wonderful talent. I want you to buy this book so we have a chance of seeing what happens when Alene is not confined to a novella length work. I suspect, if given the chance, she could be a very strong bizarro voice. I very much recommend this bloody, violent, sweet novella. It’s got love. It’s got carnage. It’s got dinosaurs with guns.
And just to remind you, you can win a free copy. Leave me a comment on this entry today, 2/16/11, before 9:00 pm CST and I will enter you in a drawing to win a copy of this book.