I began a love affair with water at an early age. My first steps were at the beach, when toddling about I tripped and started among the Jersey breakers, the film of wave washing up around my tiny ankles. I did not take, so quickly to swimming, however. Some years later I asked my dad to teach me how to swim. Lesson one was throwing me into a lake. I came back to the surface before my breath ran out; even surprised and lost as I was, tumbling when I hit the water. I had taken a quick kick towards the surface -- found the water colder, and darker there before twisting about and kicking for air. Back up on the shoreside rock, my dad told me that if I ever got confused underwater I just had to remember one thing: to open my eyes. There would be bubbles, from either my entry or by exhaling. These bubbles would always lead the way up. Just remember to open your eyes...
Pity then, should be reserved for those souls who are not able to recall the one thing they could do to save themselves.
Dermaphoria is a novel written by Craig Clevenger, published by MacAdam/Cage circa 2005. The book has a mustard colored binding with a velvet black elbow. The dustcover is a diluted, pale black by contrast. There seems to be a harmony here, in the quiet color scheme and artist rendering on the cover. A harmony which belies the disquieting events occurring within its pages.
Dermaphoria opens with two fires. Page one, sentence one: the background is burning. It isn't until paragraph three, less than halfway down the page, that we discover the narrator's mind is burning as well -- that his thoughts and memories are vanishing as smoke from a prairie fire that has burned itself to extinguishment. Our narrator find himself in jail unaware of how he came to be there. He find himself in a hospital talking with a lawyer, who calls our narrator Eric Ashworth, about a trial for which he does not know the charges.
Eric finds himself being attacked at a seedy bar by a man named Manhattan White who, with his idiot child son of a bodyguard named Toe Tag, demands from Eric compensation for the losses his "company" has incrued both by means of property damage consumed by the fire and by intellectual property created by Eric himself.
With trial eminent the lawyer, local detective, and White all press Eric to remember what happened -- to divulge what he knows. A sense of urgency is created about him, that regaining his memory is the one thing that can save his skin. All the while the only thing he can remember is a name.
Clevenger pieces together the story of Dermaphoria as if solving a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces upside down. Some parts of the puzzle are solved, randomly; haphazardly. Some clumps of pieces are turned over, revealing a stark clarity and instant solutions. Some pieces are lost to the edges of the table, and do not make it back. Eric begins to piece together some memories. He's holed up in a motel, the kind where you pay in cash and 911 is a bloodstained baseball bat. He's talked to a detective, and remembers the conversation. Still, he can't go past a few days; something is blocking his memory. There must be a way, he reasons, to get past this block. Every bit of memory he regains leads him to wanting more. Every detail to the police or to White leads to more questions, more want for answers to be provided by Eric. More memories, more questions, more need... more more. Eric suddenly makes a breakthru once he sees the pattern:
"I've spent my life giving people their More. I'm a chemist."
Eric regains some sense of himself, and regains some more of his memory after happening across a hallucinogen called Skin. It synthesizes the sense of touch, feels like somebody tracing fingertips down your arm, around your sholders. Through his drug shrouded trips, Eric begins to remember his promising career as a clandestine chemist. He also begins to remember why so many people are interested in his memory returning.
Told at a frantic pace, Dermaphoria jumps from memory to memory like a movie missing feet of frames at a time. Once continuous, Eric's memory is nothing more but a shell, with scant details of questionable worth remaining. As the story progresses he pieces more and more together. Aided by the tireless research of Clevenger (raise your hand if you look at a sports bottle and see a separatory funnel. That's my point.) and powered by his fresh metaphors and subtle dialouge Dermaphoria is a success. Gripping its audiences attention from page one Eric's story unfolds like a child's folded up fortune teller, flashing into sharp focus before disappearing again. With just the right blend of detail and shadow, Dermaphoria deserves a place on any contemporary bookshelf.