Spilling Clarence is one novel that I wanted to review after reading page one. Truly, author Anne Ursu is my new best friend. Her writing style is perfection. She captures the subtle nuances of her characters with short, exquisitely funny sentences. After reading twenty pages I had to turn to the last chapter to see if she managed to keep up the humour and pace. She did. But I still had my doubts, so I read a few pages in the middle of the book Ė success. Ursu convinced me that this novel wasnít going to fizzle out mid-way. My jaws ached from trying to keep the idiotic grin off my face.
Hereís the brilliantly witty premise: one afternoon in the town of Clarence, Minnesota, an old microwave in the employee breakroom at Harris Jones psychopharmaceutical sets the factory ablaze. The town is enveloped in a cloud of Deletrium, an experimental mind-altering drug. The drug accesses long forgotten memories, complete with emotional and physical sensations, and replays them like a virtual reality dream (or LSD flashback, take your pick). Deletrium is the nitro-glycerine of the mind. You never know when itís going to go off or how big the explosion is going to be.
Ursu crafts a novel that asks the question, What is memory? Are our memories detailed factual accounts of our past, or do we alter them over time to suit our needs? Imagine having a vivid memory of an event suddenly flash into view. Imagine that this memory, this exact replica of actual events, does not match the memory you have carried with you all of your life. Shock and awe is one way to describe the feelings washing over the inhabitants of Clarence.
This character-driven novel is a delight. Iím a stickler for plot and character development, but I have to say that Ursuís writing is so much fun to read that I really didnít care what the characters did or what motivated them, I just wanted to hear them speak. For example, Susannah Korbet, big city girl who has moved to Clarence to be with her scientist boyfriend, Todd, describes the townís factory smell as follows:
ď[t]he air here has a carrion-after-one-thousand-noontime-suns quality, an eau de rotted flesh rubbed with rancid milk; a perfume of fusty armpits, melted skunk, and old bananas; an aura of the leftover lard of fat-fried death..[t]he wind carries the smell of the place Chinese food goes to die.Ē Sure, itís not Proust, but itís a scream to read.
If you liked The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, get a copy of Spilling Clarence. And yes, I did read every page of this book. This gem gets a five out of five.