Ecco, February 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Fiction is changing. Only a handful of authors are capable of writing a compelling traditional novel, and the post-modern innovations are already passé. Many writers are at a loss for what to do. But rather than moving toward the currently fashionable trend of self-indulgent autobiographical prose that supposedly bends the boundaries of memoir and fiction, authors could instead be looking at their language, and asking themselves if they’re doing something that no one has done before. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look at the first paragraph of Sandra Newman’s new novel The Country of Ice Cream Star:
“My name be Ice Cream fifteen star. My brother be Driver Eighteen Star, and my ghost brother Mo-Jacques Five Star, dead when I myself was only six years old. Still my heart be rain for him, my brother dead of posies little.”
No, this isn’t Newman’s attempt at “urban fiction.” Rather, she’s been inspired by the syntax and grammar of urban slang to create a dialect reflecting the realistic circumstances of her novel’s world: a dystopian future where a mysterious disease doesn’t let anyone live past nineteen. Almost all her characters are black, because only black people have a resistance to the deadly virus, and even then they don’t make it into adulthood. These children live in woods and the shell of cities, hunting and fighting and stealing like a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies. The United States no longer exists, and as mass culture is also extinct, along with a centralized media, language has evolved—or devolved?—to a succinct patois, poetic in expression as it is vulgar. The result is a fresh way of viewing the world, and an original way of writing literary fiction.
For example, here’s a description of autumn you’ve never seen before:
“Leaves be Tober colors, changing with the turns of the wind. Frost glitter sometimes, then the sun speak up and it be gone.”
And here’s Ice Cream’s first glimpse at the ruins of New York City:
“Ahead, there be a spiky nonsense on the near horizon. Is like the working part of a machine, all different grays and stalks. Stand like weirdo teeth against the lighter gray of the sky. Take me time to guess, these teeth be edifices. Then I sit back dizzy. Try to wonder at their size, but all confuse in distance.”
Then there’s Ice Cream’s understanding of Christianity:
“Catolicos believing two-stick Christ. Get all this Bible story with its water-walking and genrose fish. How Jesus born to Mary who been virgin. Papa Joseph stand by whistling, got no sex to do.”
As for original similes:
“But mistrust be loud, is like a stank in every thought.”
“Hands soothe to the rifle’s weight, its metal cold like honesty.”
And of metaphors:
“Belief be food to courage.”
“Truth is, my love be sulky beasts. Will vanish, then come back alive, then turn to mean dislike. Ever I imagine telling any child, it feel like lies.”
Newman’s bound to hear from haters, but what she’s doing is not a cheap trick aimed at appealing to a mass audience. It’s an innovative use of language that allows an otherwise callous reader to be emotionally sucker-punched. Yes, at its heart, The Country of Ice Cream Star is a love story, for Ice Cream “be bell to see” and “other children go deranged and unpredictable” for her love. El Mayor of Lowell, the NewKing of Massa Armies, and a “mysteriouse” white “roo” who claims to be thirty years old all fall for Ice Cream’s beauty. Vying for her affection, they help her journey from the woods of Massachusetts to the ruins of New York and Washington D.C., all in the hopes of finding a cure for the plague they call posies.
The Country of Ice Cream Star is a bold, ballsy, ambitious novel that will get you thinking (and talking) differently about literature and the world.