by M. T. Anderson
“All Chris really wants is to be a normal kid, to hang out with his friends, avoid his parents, and get a date with Rebecca Schwartz. Unfortunately, Chris appears to be turning into a vampire. So while his hometown performs an ancient ritual that keeps Tch’muchgar, the Vampire Lord, locked in another world, Chris desperately tries to save himself from his own vampiric fate. He needs help, but whom can he trust? A savagely funny tale of terror, teen angst, suspense, and satire from National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson.” (via Amazon)
[REVIEW CONTAINS VAGUE, NONSPECIFIC SPOILERS FOR THIS BOOK]
Good Things: I’ll cut to the chase, guys: Thirsty is a pretty bleak book. Chris, a high-school freshman living in Massachusetts, lives in a world where vampires, changelings, and other nonhuman beings are real. They are hunted down and killed by humans, who fear for their own survival among the inhuman. One day, Chris is approached by a being who says he is with the Forces of Light, who needs Chris to help save the world before the annual Sad Festival of Vampires happens, and at the same time, Chris realizes he is becoming a vampire–the whole book is about his struggle to do the right thing and to resist his thirst for blood, to stay human. Ultimately, though, it’s something of a tragedy; the ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it sure ain’t happy. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by saying that, although I went into the book with absolutely no knowledge of the contents other than 1) that it was by an author I already like and 2) it was a vampire novel. So I don’t know if knowing that it’s a bleak book will affect your reading experience–well, scratch that, it probably will. I guess what I mean is that I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. I had pretty complex feelings immediately post-read, and I couldn’t have told you if I even liked the book or not, but now, a couple of days later, it feels weirdly satisfying, like putting your tongue where a tooth used to be and feeling the sore rawness of the space.
There’s a lot of good, dark, dry, almost-not-there humor that I’ve appreciated in Anderson’s books in the past. The dialogue is interesting; it’s stilted, due in part to the characters’ non-use of contractions, but the boys still call each other “buttplug” and “peckerhead,” etc. etc., so I’m inclined to call it a stylistic choice rather than any lack of knowledge about those damn teenagers and how they talk these days. I guffawed aloud at Lolli’s multicolored note to Christopher (C-R-E-M-A-T-E-D :( ), among other scenes. Thinking about it, the book reminds me of Etgar Keret’s novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” or Junji Ito’s series Gyo or Uzumaki (although, unlike the latter two, I would read Thirsty and “Kneller’s Happy Campers” again).
Bad Things: I don’t know if I can properly enumerate things that I found bad about the story, but I can talk about why other people might not like it, and why I understand the contentiousness of such a book. I’ve been thinking about this since I read the book two days ago, and I keep coming back to one of Joey Comeau’s posts about his own book, Bible Camp Bloodbath. If you haven’t read it, it’s a semi-comic horror story where there the murderer wins, there are no survivors, and the story ends on a pretty tragic note; in the later post, Comeau talks about how he stayed true to his original vision of a horror story where the murderer “just runs out of people to kill,” but ultimately regretted the resultant hopelessness of the story, and has plans to rewrite and republish it.
Thirsty is one of those books where readers are going to have to weigh its purity of vision versus its hopelessness for their own preferences, and I’m sure a lot of readers may find it coming up too hopeless. It’s a pretty gutsy thing, to write a whole book that ultimately resolves in ambiguous hopelessness; you see writers take that risk more often with short stories, because the readers don’t have as much invested in a twenty-page story versus a three-hundred-page novel, and for a lot of people, a truly hopeless ending to a novel can feel like a betrayal by the author. But here, I think, it fits. Anderson creates this world–this cold, grimy, tinny world that’s hardly worth saving in the end, and the hopelessness feels…right. There was no other way it could have happened.
In the author’s notes, Anderson is quoted as saying, “I grew up in a suburb very much like Chris’s. It seemed to me that there were always a lot of kids struggling with the isolation of wanting to do the right thing when there was no right thing to do.” I don’t think anybody can articulate it better than that.
Overall: A complex, bleak book; not for everybody, although I thought it worked well, with a terrible, funny sadness. Probably good for fans of Etgar Keret, Junji Ito, and M. T. Anderson’s other works. For maximum impact, read in conjunction with a novel that is of the vampires-are-glamorous-and-sexy school.