Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Review: Inside the Outside, or: The Fine Young Cannibals

A couple weeks ago, I caught this article, “A Self-Publisher’s Manifesto,” by Martin Lastrapes and posted to the Self-Publishing Review. I thought it was a fairly good post, with a cogent argument presented, in which Lastrapes discussed the perceived “stigma” associated with so-called “self-publishing,” and made this claim:

So if the readers aren’t holding onto this stigma, then where exactly is it coming from? Unfortunately, the answer is it’s coming from the writers themselves.

Now, I disagreed, there; I remain of the mindset that the “stigma” associated with independent publishing is propagated mainly by the people who argue that independent publishing shouldn’t be called that, because IT’S DIFFERENT AND YOU ARE IGNORANT. Generally, the people who do so are agents and editors, or at the very least people who have some bias toward the late twentieth century distribution model as a result of being tied to it. I’ve also seen it from authors who have signed with corporate publishers after first finding some success via independence. MJ Rose, for example, has tweeted that authors should “own self-publishing.”

I think Lastrapes does have a point in that a lot of authors go indie first but yet never give up the hope of that elusive publication contract, that rockstar book tour, that etc. I’ve seen a lot of authors pursue independent publishing as a means to an end, rather than as an end itself; that is, that many seem to hope that rising up the Kindle charts will attract a corporate publisher.

But before I get off on too much of a tangent, the point of this post; shortly after I commented on Lastrapes’ article, to much the same effect as I elaborated above, he contacted me personally about the possibility of stopping by this site to do an interview.

I’ve never done that before. And I thought, well, okay. Why not? But, I thought, before I do anything, I should read his book. Which was just less than a buck.

I fear one of the worst things a reader can do is study writing and become better at it; personally, I find it so difficult to just read a book sometimes and shut off my own inner–critic? Editor? Something like that. As a reader, nowadays, the books I dream of are the rare, exceptional ones I begin and, within a sentence, suspend my own inner writer.

This is true of all books, which I mention because so many people make the argument that the best case for corporate publishing is that all books that have survived some vetting process have achieved some fundamental level of competence. This is not the case, and further, there are as many absolutely mediocre books published by corporations as there are published independently.

Martin Lastrapes’ Inside the Outside is not a mediocre book. It is an exceptional novel like I rarely encounter. I devoured it in a weekend.

The story focuses on Timber Marlow, a member of the Marlow clan, which is a religious sect that lives on a compound somewhere in the Inland Empire around San Bernadino in the middle of California.

The story begins with a prologue, and a rather killer opening line/paragraph:

During the course of her life, at various points, both in her youth and as an adult, Timber Marlow was, what you might call, a murderer. But she wasn’t a murderer so far as I’m concerned. For certain she killed–and, so that there is no confusion, she was a killer of men. The word “murder,” however, has sinister connotations, and Timber Marlow was not sinister. Nor was she cold, callous, or without conscience. And she was by no means a sociopath. She was simply a girl whose view of the world–by which I mean her perception of right and wrong–was skewed by the circumstances of her upbringing. Timber Marlow was raised as a cannibal.

I mean, blam, right?

I think that’s just killer as an opening, and I think part of it is the matter-of-factness with which Lastrapes tells this story. Which I think makes all the difference in the world. This is a novel about an incestuous, cannibalistic religious sect living somewhere in the middle of California, and I think the power of the novel comes from Lastrapes’ refusal to indulge in what could have been the inherent squickiness of the situation. Cannibalism is presented as ordinary. A sect whose members have no concept of family, only, really, of love, is simple.

The language, too, is simple. Lastrapes–who earned a degree in creative writing and a master’s in composition–is not reaching for his thesaurus, nor trying to extend descriptions into overwrought phrasings and ornate prose. He writes with not only finesse but also control–the latter of which I think is one of the most difficult things for a writer to exercise. So often, we get so enthralled by the worlds we’re creating, the characters we’re watching, the situations we’ve imagined, and too often, I think, we drag readers along without thinking of their experience of it.

Which is not to say he has no style. Just that he doesn’t get in the way of the story.

Which, in fact, seems, to me, tightly structured, as well. Reading it, I could propose act breaks and a definite midpoint. I think that’s often neglected in novels, where structure is sometimes regarded as a dirty word and plot is its red-headed bastard stepchild besides.

There’s an inherent dread that builds through the novel, and it’s punctuated here and there by scenes of extreme violence verging on gore. It never grossed me out, even when describing the carving of human flesh, but then again I might just have a stronger tolerance for that sort of thing, growing up, as I did, reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz and so many others.

Speaking of King, I alluded, on Amazon, to his famously noting that he always aimed for dread, but when he couldn’t achieve that, he’d go for a quick scare and wasn’t too proud to stoop to a cheap gross-out. This, to me, summed up what Lastrapes accomplished with Inside the Outside; even during a scene describing the carving of human flesh, Lastrapes never takes his eyes from the overall effect of the novel, never breaking that feeling of dread that hangs over the characters and their lives. I think this is part of the real power, too, in that while Lastrapes doesn’t indulge in the grotesque, he does truly capture the humanity of the characters in this story.

I’m not often fully enthralled by a novel, so I look forward to those rare books that manage it. I’ll also look forward to Lastrapes’ next. On a scale of inside to outside, I’m giving this one a beyond, and you can pick up your own copy right here.

1 Comment

  1. I think this post has been preserved and restored about 5 times this year.

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