Despite the success of her parenting zine, Hip Mama, and memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, local author Ariel Gore still needs to practice her fiction. Gore's uneven first novel, The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show (HarperSanFrancisco, 240 pages, $13.95) flirts with interesting themes and characters, but never develops them.
Frankka, Gore's heroine, is a stigmatic. Through fasting and focus, she can force blood out through her palms. A rotten Catholic, orphan and outcast, Frankka has built a weird stage troupe around her weirder talent. The troupe's "Death and Resurrection Show"—with its firebreather and acrobat, drag queen and mongrel spirituality—is part gypsy caravan, part old-time revival.
Pulled between her admiration for Catholic saints and contempt for the Catholic Church, Frankka struggles to understand her faith and the meaning of her stigmata. Gore toys with belief, devotion and sainthood—but the themes are diluted. The moody, mystical vibe that Gore occasionally achieves is broken by trite rants about "Jesus freaks" and Norah Jones references.
Frankka is constantly explaining herself through inner monologue. Gore tells too much and shows too little. As a result, Frankka never quite becomes a believable or likable character. And side characters don't even get close. They suffer from tired backstories: Barbaro, the doctor-turned-fire breather who quit medicine after losing a patient; Magdalena, the anorexic blonde obsessed with stardom. Or, like vegan revolutionary Tony, they devolve into talking heads, spouting off about culture wars and anarchic utopia.
But the novel does have its bright spots. Gore is at her most original and engaging in the vignettes that break up her story. These strange fables about saints have biblical undertones, spiked with casual, modern phrases. She calls St. Brigid of Ireland "quite the hottie" and claims that praying to St. Anthony of Egypt will cure your "funky skin conditions." These sharp passages hint at Gore's talent and make the novel's ultimate failure all the more frustrating. She can clearly do better.
Gore overcomplicates her task. Already taking on the monolith of religion, she tries to tie in Western society and politics, punk rockers, anarchists and hippies—and gets dangerously close to New Age jabber. The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show fails because it tries to do too much, too fast.
Though Gore's talent manages to shine through, it's mired in small mistakes and big ideas. If she can narrow her focus, Gore may someday write a great novel. This, however, isn't it.
Attic Faculty Reading: Ariel Gore will read with other instructors from the Attic Writers' Workshop including
editor David Biespiel,
contributing editor Bill Donahue, and
magazine's editor, Shanna Germain. 7 pm Sunday, Sept. 10. Blackfish Gallery, 420 NW 9th Ave., 963-8783. Free.