Death Wishing is the debut novel from Laura Ellen Scott whose chapbook, Curio, I featured here earlier this year. It’s hard to know how to classify Death Wishing. Magic realism, perhaps, although it behaves much like science fiction, with a single wild premise producing conflict that drives the action, and characters who reveal themselves as they confront the conflict. See J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World for an example of the sci-fi paradigm. Here, the single wild premise is this: as people die, their final wish comes true. Cancer is a distant memory. Cats are now extinct. Elvis returns (was he ever gone?) Mothers grow a third eye in the back of their head. But this new phenomenon has its problems. Whatever mysterious power grants these wishes has a legalistic brain, reminding us of the old adage: be careful what you wish for. When a dying woman of generous intent wishes everyone could have a thousand dollars, people with millions of dollars are devastated at their loss.
As you’d expect, death wishing produces social unrest: how can you plan for tomorrow when the world tomorrow may be wished into something radically different? This spawns the Wish Local movement to limit the global impact of poorly thought-out wishes. For example, a diva wishes permanent tacky orange clouds for her hometown, and so it is, but only within the city limits of New Orleans. The practice of death wishing has its dark side, too. People have an incentive to force the dying to make wishes that favour their caregivers, and some are even willing to murder for wishes.
In the midst of this chaos, we have Victor Swaim, our middle-aged, divorced, mid-life crisis-bemoaning, man-boob-sprouting hero. Victor has suffered some come-downs in his time. Once, he was the “info tech director for a major defense contractor” in North Virginia. Now he sews corsets in his son’s clothing shop and makes goo eyes at Pebbles, his son’s girlfriend. Victor would prefer an inconspicuous life blithely free of the wishing foofarah, and while some, like Victor, do not aspire to greatness, they have it thrust upon them anyways. In Victor’s case, the thrusting comes from several different directions at the same time. Pebbles falls into the clutches of a cult leader who is hell bent on killing people for their wishes (Victor gets on their hit list of course); a group of vigilantes buys its capes from Victor (making him an accessory to illegal actions); and in a case of mistaken identity, Victor becomes a local celebrity for (allegedly) foiling a robbery attempt at his son’s store. With so much unwanted attention, Victor finds himself on the run. I say no more on matters of plot lest I spoil the fun.
I think the novel can be read as a kitschy parable of consumer culture. The key to this reading can be found in the opening pages with an account of the very first death wish: that there really be alien bodies at Roswell. After the wish has come to pass, we have this passage:
Upon dissection, we learned that every detail of alien physiognomy had already been imagined by scientists, artists, writers, etc. It was all very exciting, but ultimately there was nothing to be learned from hundreds of copies of an all too generalized ideal. The aliens didn’t come from anywhere, and they couldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. They were the perfect ambassadors of our limits.
The things we desire come from within and so are no grander than the constraints of our imaginations. Those constraints, it turns out, are pretty much determined by pop culture.
We have the scene at Roswell as one of the novel’s bookends. The other bookend presents Elvis, after a session of shooting up old television sets, taking pot shots at the orange clouds over New Orleans. He keeps it up until they come crashing to the ground. It seems none of this wishing produces anything real; it’s all pop culture kitsch. Almost inevitably, the results of the death wishing fade away and the world goes back to being the world. Yet we can’t help but think that death is a terrible price to pay for something so fleeting and so tacky.
Death Wishing is a fun novel, written in a crisp prose and with keen observations. Like any work that comments on the kitschy side of the pop divide, it skirts dangerously close to the line and risks crossing over into kitschiness itself, but Laura Ellen Scott adroitly negotiates her way along this line.
If you like this book, you might also enjoy Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa.
Be sure to make your own wish. Go to deathwishing.com and use the wish tank to post what you would wish for if you were about to bite the big one.