Inorganic Chemistry: On B. R. Yeager's Negative Space
At first, B. R. Yeager’s Negative Space assumes nothing more than the garb of your typical, formulaic horror novel.
Teenagers get up to no good; they go to places they shouldn’t. Sometimes these teens drink, get high on the latest, technically legal, artificial substance on the market, and they trespass abandoned lots, houses, and cemeteries. Then an ‘epidemic’ of teenage suicides strikes the small town of Kinsfield, New Hampshire. Each of these is a hanging; each of these ends up photographed anonymously and posted online. No one knows the whence or why. In fact, most people seem rather indifferent to the trend; there are more important things to worry about when you’re in high school and when you’re raising teenagers, I suppose. These elements – teens where they shouldn’t be, inexplicable deaths, murmurs of occult practices or supernatural origins, indifferent or incompetent parents, ‘underground’ Internet forums – drop us into familiar territory. This is a paradox of typical genre-fiction: it does nothing new, so when these authors aim to unsettle or penetrate a deep-seated fear they fail. They never leave the living room where your parents accidentally left Night of the Living Dead on the television.
Yeager springs a different trap, though. He upends the formula early-on. Although all of these elements seem familiar to anyone who has seen a horror film or thriller-drama in the last fifty years, the processes Yeager will put them through are neither conventional nor predictable. Heirs to Molloy and Thomas the Obscure, Yeager's characters and their voices are volatile, caustic reagents, eating away, maybe fruitlessly, at the alienation and brain-dead phenomenology of lived experience that saturate contemporary life. Yeager devilishly subverts what at first feels like a formulaic, pulpy, teen-horror story, and even at the early stage of its narrative it is engaging.
This book is intelligent, because it is subtle; esoteric, because it is subtle; and queer, because it is excessive beyond identity.
Rule of Not-Quite-Three
Our first impression tells us that the book switches between the perspectives of three characters: Ahmir, Jill, and Lu, not an unusual narrative technique, especially these days. Yeager even deceives us into thinking this is a transparent tripartite division of the narrative by writing each character’s name in bold ink as a heading once their voice begins telling the story.
\This is all a trick, however. There are not-quite-three voices telling this story. First, Lu is soon referred to as “Lou” and “he” by some characters, yet she, the headings, and Jill all refer to her as “Lu” and with feminine pronouns. There’s never an explanation of this. Yeager, rightly, never tells us that Lu is a trans-woman, nonbinary, or femme-adjacent in anyway. It would seem that Lu is a split voice then. There is Lou, who exists only for others, one weighed down by family, small town conventions, and religious morays. Then there is Lu, who would be the true person speaking, the authentic voice. However, things are not this simple, in life or in the world of Negative Space. Yeager and Lu have no time for cheap, simple slogans about the authenticity a protagonist can find at the end of their Bildungsroman. As such, Lu has several personas; she is not a settled character.
Furthermore, during many of Lu’s narrations we read a forum along with her. The usernames of each participant appear in bold headings, just like Lu, Ahmir, and Jill’s names. At some points, clues lead the reader to believe that they know the identity behind a particular username, but anonymity reigns online. This particular forum is where pictures of recent suicides in Kinsfield are uploaded. So, we have an indefinite number of people gathered together in a ‘space’ that doesn’t physically exist but nonetheless exists. In this space they gather to wait for images to upload, to talk to one another, and to discuss what may be behind the spate of hangings. What results is further fragmentation of the storyline, offering us more paths to follow or holes to fall down as we try to understand what is going in Kinsfield and who any of the people involved really are.
My final example of how the constant fragmentation of identity in Negative Space: there are several episodes in which our narrators’ identities dissolve and reform. A new substance called WHORL is on the teens’ (and some adults’) tongues. WHORL is a hallucinogen, breaking up a person’s conscious experience and perception, totally upending their identity for as long as its high lasts. Yet again, this not your run-of-the-mill artificial hallucinogen. It’s possible it may actually provide users access to a higher realm of thought, it may allow one to see supernatural, malevolent beings in Kinsfield, or it may have origins in the ritual practices of some esoteric group. WHORL generates a social environment dominated by nights of frenzied dissolution and willful self-abnegation. Ahmir, Jill, Lu, and anyone who uses it, are not singular individuals upon experiencing its effects.
Lu’s queerness, the anonymity of digital interaction, and the dubious origins and effects of WHORL are just two examples of how Negative Space forces the reader to recognize and live with the constant elision of stable, reliable voices in inventive ways. The story does not remain wallowing in ambiguous fumes, though. The breakdown of simple binary divisions and tripartite structures never adequately resolves, but we’re not left hanging with a trite maxim, something like, “The world isn’t really black-and-white.” The subtle indulgence Yeager takes in Negative Space is exactly to posit something, a precipitate leftover from the aftermath of our characters’ turbulent stories.
The Weight of a Soul
Once, an eccentric physician by the name of Baumhauer lived and died in Kinsfield, New Hampshire. We’re told that the few people interested in the life and work of Baumhauer have been unable to verify very much. The only definitive information is contained in his surviving work, The Entropic Pantheon. In this work, he details his idiosyncratic ontology and metaphysics, going so far as to postulate that the human soul has a weight. To find out, he weighs himself on a scale, has an assistant record the measurement, and then hangs himself on the scale. The assistant then measured the difference in weight between the living Baumhauer and his corpse.
Ultimately, this would furnish evidence to imply that the human soul lives on after the body perishes. The mystery of several suicides hanging over Kinsfield, the shady business of WHORL, the occult color of some of the teens’ activities, and the legend of Baumhauer’s mysterious experiments create a setting not only saturated with the constant fragmentation of identity but also the looming threat of infinitude. If the soul lives on, where does it go? Perhaps to heaven, but WHORL has our characters seeing some strange, black tendrils in the air…
Baumhauer’s investigations on the nature of the soul bely a fixation with the inorganic in its archaic sense: incorporeal or spiritual substances. At the dawn of natural philosophy, the inorganic did not signify non-living substances or materials, but the stuff of the afterlife. The inorganic as we know it today simply did not exist. In Negative Space, the archaic definition, the contemporary definition, a few possible, ephemeral third definitions of inorganic are at issue. Rather than an exploration of some trite ‘darkness inside the mind/soul/psyche’ or a cosmic horror from the infinite Outside, the horror of Negative Space is the indeterminacy of the inorganic.
The inorganic is particularly stirring because in all of its definitions it is not wholly other. It belongs to this world, and even if it is extraterrestrial, it obeys some kind of natural or physical law. The chemical mechanics and physical dynamics that make up our day-to-day lives are the very same processes that lead to our perishing. Today, this is hardly frightening or uncomfortable truth. We have immune responses for this very thing. Abrahamic religion might do it for some; Zen might do it for others; stills others may find shelter from the infinite in psychedelics, art, Stoicism, or what have you. We have ever more artifices to shield us from the twin, terrifying prospects that being may definitively end or may indefinitely continue.
I have barely scratched the surface of Negative Space in this review. At worst, it’s an inventive, wonderfully written book. Book reviews themselves are always practices in the artificial. In contemporary book circles especially, book reviews are more often advertisements than reviews, commentaries, or criticisms. I don’t want to just advertise Negative Space. When I use the language of universality (truth, principle, and so on) I do mean to impose an indulgent claim: Negative Space has an effect, a truth-effect. It is not just an exploration, a description, or a good story. It is those things, but what makes it stand out for me, and what will ensure it endures (in whatever sense and whichever form), will be its adroit exposition of the inorganic as constitutive, alien, and terrifying, and its subsequent illustration of the futility of bunkering from the inorganic one’s self, others, or the world. According to each of its definitions, the inorganic is always present, even as an abruption, a negative space in the peripheries.
Negative Space does not offer a chirpy, smiling simplification of the essence of complexity. It is not merely a story with ambiguous characters influenced by polyvalent, indeterminate forces. It exceeds.
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Stay safe and healthy out there.