My reactions are:
This book has been on my Goodreads ToBeRead list for-eveh, or at least since I joined GR. It was one of the first times I added a book despite being stymied by my ability to procure it (I was operating under a ‘library-only’ rule at the time). But something about it begged to be left on my list, and I finally (three years later? My, my. I’m either persistent or obsessive) was able to get it from the library. What I received had absolutely no resemblance to what I expected. Thank you, Universe. Seriously.
A quick dialogue and list-based read, by turns hysterical and tragic. Some might even add horrific by the end. Two partially broken souls meet at the supermarket and discover they are each laboring under a curse. Our narrator is doomed to be slapped every day. He knows it’s true–it has already happened 12 times. His supermarket friend Cecily has a particular vision regarding a tennis ball. What follows is their attempt to discover others like them, as well as solve the questions of who and how to get rid of the curse. It also becomes a very gentle story of developing connections.
Shipp is masterful with character creation. I found myself trying to fit them all in a neat character box, and they don’t go willingly. The emphasis on dialogue means that it takes interaction for character to unfold, resulting in a fragmented kaleidoscope view. Add to it their unusual personal styles-for instance, Cecily’s insistence on describing ordinary events in the most surreal manner possible–and it makes for an intriguing read.
It is also an unusually structured story. Nicolas’ focus on lists is a clever narrative hook, but is not always explanatory. Shipp’s refusal to include more than minimal transitions means work is required on the part of the reader, as well as a willingness to forgo literary convention. For example, the book opens with a chapter titled “#12,” a short two and a half page interaction between the narrator, Nicholas, and Nadia. The next chapter is titled “#13” and takes place at the supermarket between Nicolas and Cecily. No going home, no backdrop, no character infodump; just a couple of snapshots, clips from a life.
To enjoy a book, I need certain elements present, whether it be character, idea, plot or writing. This has ideas and character in spades. The search for answers to the curse leads to musings on the nature of self-perception, self-definition, mental illness, eccentricity and life, and rather lends itself to reader engagement and compassion. There’s a growing sense of urgency and paranoia as the curse victims seek a way out before they are destroyed, left as mere shells of themselves. There are also bizarro moments that caused furrowed brow, so if you are in the mood for concrete, non-dream-based dramatics, look elsewhere. That was perhaps the toughest section for me and my tendency towards plot-based reading, but I find that it largely works. It would also be the major reason for a four-and-a-half star rating.
A teeny, tiny snippet from page 11, “#13” (completely non-spoilery):
“Nicolas,” she says, not smiling for once. “The cart’s fine, hon. I’m the defective one.”
I laugh, because I always feel like laughing when I’m around Cicely. If she told me her cat died, I might laugh on accident. Then I notice the tennis ball in her right hand. I force myself to look away.
“I missed you last week,” I say. I didn’t mean to sound so sincere. So small.
Now she smiles. And with a smile like that, she can’t be #13.
“I’m sorry I missed it,” she says. “I was busy being kidnapped by little green men.”
“I should have known.”
“Luckily, I annoyed their scientists so much they let me go. It turns out aliens despise show tunes. ‘Brigadoon‘ especially.”
I laugh. The world is right in the supermarket again.
You see? Absurd, funny, vulnerable, awkward, odd… so very, very human.