(Throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the "hero's journey," as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
By Tommaso Pincio
Review by Madeleine Maccar
A coming-of-age tale, like every other journey at its core, is a journey to death. It might exist outside the story's scope and well beyond the hero's happy ending, but it's still hovering there in the shadows beyond the last page. Tommaso Pincio's Love-Shaped Story makes no attempt to hide that its hero is positioning himself for a headlong descent to the grave, resulting in a moody, charmingly sympathetic book about heroin addiction and the delicate souls who are obviously not long for this world.
As explained in an author's note, Pincio's story initially focused on "a bizarre individual who has convinced himself that he doesn't exist... and falls in love with a stripper whom he mistakes for a beautiful alien from a forbidden planet." Realizing that the plot and its tone were best served by dropping his characters in the dreary Pacific northwest of the '90s, connecting those dots to the grunge movement and one of its most iconic figures, Kurt Cobain (featured here in a respectfully but highly fictionalized manner), was all but inevitable: That bizarre individual became Homer Boddah Alienson, a personification of sorts of Cobain's childhood imaginary friend and the sobering mirror reflection of the heroin abuse that plagued his older years.
Homer, like so many drug addicts before him, had an unhappy childhood punctuated by his parents' casual neglect and his compulsive, joyless need to own duplicate after duplicate of various mass-produced toy spaceships, which he boxed away almost immediately upon acquisition (unbeknownst to his younger self, he'll later sell these piece by piece to the "nostalgia geeks" whose desperate clamor for his now-collectible childhood trinkets he abhors). He grows up lonely but not morose, emotionally stunted and a little naïve from a lack of interest in experiencing life and other people because at the age of nine, Homer becomes deadly certain that he is alone in a world of "differents," people who aren't who they seem, ranging from the garbage man to his mother who, in a very Invasion of the Body Snatchers way, have been slowly replaced by the pod people who will subsume Homer if he betrays his humanity with hot-blooded outbursts or any telltale signs of emotion. So he disengages from the world and stops sleeping for nearly two decades, until one of his beloved nighttime walks introduces him to Kurt, a kindred spirit carrying around the kind of damage instantly recognizable to Homer as his own, and Kurt introduces heroin to Homer's life.
Prior to this, Homer had become recently preoccupied with the question of love, namely what it is. His journey, at first, seems to be his search for love; in actuality, love is just one last thing he has to do before he goes. Homer is too steeped in paranoia (the caliber of which is on par with what one would expect from a writer whose nom de plume is a nod to Thomas Pynchon) to fully give himself to another; however, opening himself up to the possibility of love's presence in his life is his final atonement before giving himself entirely to the thanatos that has been creeping over him for decades.
What Homer discovers on his quest to find out what love is is Kurt, in whose friendship he finds both a long-awaited connection and the drug that will become his world entire for the remainder of his life. From their fateful meeting springs a habit that Homer lovingly fosters, ceremoniously introducing the substance to his body and giving himself up to it completely, all because Kurt, who also feels like an outsider wherever he goes, said it would help kick Homer's 18 years of self-imposed sleeplessness. With the melodic white noise of movies and the occasional visit from Kurt to slice the days into significant chunks of passing time, Homer carelessly crosses over the threshold into the land of modern-day lotus-eaters.
As Kurt's band--known to the everyone who lived through the '90s as Nirvana but unnamed in these pages--begins its ascension to fame, Homer imagines himself giving a televised interview that goes from bad to worse as he rambles on to the hostess's annoyance before she outs him as a junkie and he spectacularly voids his stomach all over her. Homer can't even see himself as someone worthy of others' attention and regard inside his head, serving as nothing more than a trove of before-he-was-famous Kurt stories and having his mind rub his own nose in the problems he doesn't want to face; the talk show inside Homer's strung-out head serves as the first real indication that his drug problem is getting away from him while quietly signalling that the damage inside us is capable of delivering hurtful blows just as effectively if not more so than any combination of violent external forces.
When Nirvana goes on tour, Homer departs for Rachel, NV, a town that makes its living on the tourists who come for the possibly extraterrestrial light shows, a town whose population is a little extraterrestrial itself. There, having already faced the challenges of a depleted heroin supply and the unwelcome revelation that his drug problem is less about using to get some sleep and more about just being a junkie, Homer the outsider is a welcome novelty: The locals and tourists alike come to greet him in an E.T.-esque manner (as in, "E.T. phone Home-er") and soon he is paid to be a fixture at a local dive bar where he tells his story, from being a mail-order vendor of childhood memories who sells off his own childhood with every immaculately preserved toy spaceship to his friendship with Kurt to his ongoing search for love. In Rachel, the recurring theme of Homer's alienation comes to a head, as he is finally an outsider in a place where it's acceptable to feel out of place, rather than feeling disconnected from his hometown and his own head, both being spaces in which he could only comfortably exist with the help of a drug that lets him turn off and tune out the world so he can cope with living in it. After a life of living among the differents, a town of legitimate strangers is a welcome, almost hopeful, change.
As the lines separating Homer from Kurt blur in inverse proportion to the growing physical distance between them, they ride out their respective rises to reluctant celebrity, with Homer's being the journey laid out here in excruciating detail: He becomes miserable, with his dwindling stash being the only thing that keeps him afloat. When he uses the last of it, knowing no one in the desert from whom he can score, withdrawal hits him hard (as it is wont to do) and in his agonizing transformation from daily user to stone-cold sobriety, a woman comes to him and changes everything. Touted by the dive bar's barkeeper as the love from another world to maintain Homer's mystique and make a few dollars while Homer's sweating and shaking out the worst of his withdrawal symptoms in solitude, the woman, Molly Resident, supplants the now-absent heroin as his heroine. Homer, paranoid and self-defeating as he is, is torn between getting to know Molly and doing something about what he thinks is love for her (she being the only woman he's ever talked to for any length of time, as uncomfortable as their conversations are), and winds up sabotaging his big chance to reveal his jumble of feelings. Fearing that Molly, too, has been claimed by the body snatchers, Homer runs.
And he is not heard from again 'til days before Kurt's suicide and the discovery of his body; when Homer reads the letter his friend addressed to Boddah--to him--he puts that very same Remington shotgun in his own mouth and pulls the trigger, Homer and Kurt being connected as they were like the arms of a clock: One moves with the other, occasionally coming together but mostly tending to their own peregrinations, and one stops when the other ceases to move forward.
Homer, a harmless, self-proclaimed coward who finds himself on a hero's journey, is a man seeking some kind of meaning. He gets a taste of love, hints of happiness, but what he really wants is the sweet release of death. The discovery of a drug that lets him sample the erasure of life's ills and wounds is the beginning of his escape from the mortal coil, his way of preparing for the death he warmly welcomes. Love-Shaped Story doesn't go so far as encourage suicide but it forgives it by reminding us that some people are much too comprised of too-breakable parts to live in a world that will try to reshape them to fit more easily among the neighbors and family with whom they share neither a connection nor commonalities.
Like the grunge it relies on for background color, Pincio's story is one of inherent merit, letting itself rest on the truths it embraces rather than distracting from its incomplete heart with professional polish and appealing to its audience to maximize its appeal. The writing itself is understated, darkly beautiful and compassionate, but the details on which it focuses to drive its points home are raw, dirty, unflinching and brutally honest. It's also sympathetic to the fact that some people have a beauty within them that exists in direct conflict with the world and the zeitgeist shaping it at that time, and that some people simply can't cope with so-called normal life. Homer and Kurt keep intersecting and coinciding, Homer often appearing invisible to others when Kurt's around and then being mistaken for his more famous friend when he's alone, as their inability to function as normal people in normal society for their excess paranoia and extent of their inner damages keeps them from relating to the world they regard as overwhelmingly populated with differents who regard them as indistinguishable from each other.
It is, most of all, a kind of an apology for those who are wired in such a way that they're doomed from childhood to a life of being misunderstood by others and roughed up a little too easily by the sucker-punches life throws. Homer seems like just another drug-addled loser who retreats inward because facing the world is just too much for him, but he makes a valiant effort to cope with a life he doesn't necessarily want, save for the distant hope that there are others like him who've yet to be claimed by the differents. He finds that connection in Kurt, who proves to be the love Homer was looking for: an identical soul trapped in a world he doesn't belong in, waiting to be released to the home beyond this alien one in which they've been deposited by some mistake of fate that they're trying to correct.