Tentacle

Every so often you encounter a novel which is quite unlike anything you have read before. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle is one such text – the final book in And Other Stories year of publishing women – as slippery and other-worldly as its title suggests. It is first of all some kind of science fiction, presenting a near-future as plausible as it is depressing. Mixed in with this we have a strand of supernatural, and a series of lives linked across time which could belong to either genre. It could fairly be described as a ‘mash-up’ if that did not suggest a certain carelessness. Instead what stands out is its surging imaginative energy.

The world Indiana presents to us is one ravaged by environmental disasters and deeply divided into rich and poor. The first of its two central characters, who appear in alternate chapters, Acilde, is a servant in a house which automatically kills anyone who approaches the entrance if they are affected by a virus which has led to half the island being quarantined:

“Recognizing the virus on the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.”

Acilde herself only found her present position sucking off men for money, acting as the boy she wants to be: “Her rounds up at El Mirador had barely paid for food and data, without which she couldn’t live.” It was there she met Eric, the “right-hand man” of the owner of the house she now works in, Esther. He not only offered her the job, but the chance to train as a chef, the career she hopes will allow her to save enough to change sex, a transformation which can now occur using “Rainbow Brite, an injection making the rounds in alternative science circles that promised a complete sex change without surgery.” In the meantime, Acilde, and her friend Morla, have already come up with a quicker way of achieving her goal – by stealing a valuable sea anemone which Esther has in her possession (most marine life having been destroyed).

“Their plan was very simple. When the old lady left on a trip, Morla would find a way to get round the building’s security, disconnect the cameras, take the anemone away in a special container, and leave Acilde tied, gagged, and free of any blame.”

Unfortunately Morla gets restless and kills Esther, Acilde proceeding to “break a Lladro dolphin…on his head” before taking the anemone for herself. Eric helps her transition, explain her new identity will fulfil a prophesy – he is the Chosen One:

“We gave you the body you wanted and now you’ve given us the body we needed.”

Meanwhile (in chapter two) washed-up artist Argenis is working in a call centre selling tarot readings when he is given an opportunity to be one of a number of artists working towards a gallery opening in a beachside property owned by Linda Goldman. The main attraction for Argenis is Linda: “the most beautiful thing Argenis had seen in his life.” Argenis is stung by an anemone while snorkelling and afterwards develops a dream life in the island’s past:

“Several bearded white men with stained clothes approach him in a canoe, pulling him out of the water and taking him to shore. They’re carrying knives an antique pistols on their belts and wearing sandals made from braided leather.”

Indiana is clearly not short of plot but, as madcap as it may sound in summary, both stories have a strong internal logic. Acilde, like Argenis, exists in other points in time, but unlike him, he is able to take advantage of it, allowing himself to be imprisoned for Esther’s murder to utilise his other lives, while Argenis is “trying to close the door” on his. These different lives echo the characters attempts to recreate themselves: Acilde as a man; Argenis as an artist.

Tentacle seems very ‘now’ – the epitome of ‘novel’. Its politics are those of gender and environment. It even comments wryly on the need for art to change as Argenis is nicknamed ‘Goya’ by his fellow art students not as a compliment but because he is stuck in the past:

“Look around, damn it, do you think a bunch of little angels is what’s needed here??”

But it would be foolish to think this means it is gimmicky or arch. Tentacle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read this year, and translator Achy Obejas is to be congratulated for bringing it into English still fresh and pulsing with life.

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5 Responses to “Tentacle”

  1. banff1972 Says:

    Sounds so interesting, Grant. This wasn’t on my radar at all, so thank you for writing about it. BTW, I looked this up at a certain online retailer: you’ll be pleased to know that it is ranked #1 in Dominican Republic Travel Guides. Someone is going to have either a delightfully strange or disappointingly confusing trip…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds completely crazy (in a good way). I can understand why you found it so invigorating!

  3. The Remainder | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] given the quality of And Other Stories publications last year, with both The Iliac Crest and Tentacle more deserving of a place on the long […]

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