is a fantasy
novel by Francesca Lia Block
. It was published in 1993
but quickly went out of print
--Block did not then have the reputation she now holds (wrested from the unforgiving literary community with the young adult
novel Weetzie Bat
), and so the book was lost to obscurity
, available to enthusiasts only in collectors' editions that cost several hundred dollars. However, as her reputation grew, more and more people wished to get copies of Ms. Block's earliest novels, and happily, Ecstasia
and its sequel, Primavera
, were re-released in paperback
in early 2004
In this stunningly poetic novel, Block explores the difficult issues surrounding youth versus age, as well as touching on drug abuse, parental issues, homosexuality, and (of course) love. Laced ingeniously with references to Greek mythology, it will be enjoyed by any fan of ethereal fantasy, and it will appeal to those who can appreciate a story for its artistic presentation as well as its content.
"Ecstasia" is a band, though its members and its fans would argue that it might be a creature with its own identity. Calliope, Rafe, Dionisio, and Paul are its members, each with his or her own haunting story. The band lives in a place called Elysia, where youth is glorified to the point that people voluntarily disappear underground when they recognize signs of aging on their bodies. It is a circus-like atmosphere (and strangely enough, it seems everyone is engaged in pleasure all the time while no one is actually running the town--a reader wonders whose invisible hands provide for this paradise?). Though there is the occasional exception (i.e., "the Old Clown," a unicycle-riding performer whose aged face is a strange sight to the youthful residents), people flee to "Under" when they feel they are too old. No one makes them go; they simply do not wish to burden the young with their oldness and sickness, so they run into a tunnel and wrap themselves in bandages, living in filth until death comes to claim them.
Calliope and Rafe are brother and sister. Their parents once lived in the desert, until their mother, Estrella, pressured their father to bring them to Elysia and raise them there. Their father disappeared early, while their mother waited a while before leaving them a mysterious and sad note and hiding herself underground. They were told in the note never to think of her or where she has gone, but Calliope, who has always had visions, feels that her mother is calling to her right before her death, and she runs away to be with her mother underground in her last moments.
For his part, Rafe has been entranced with a girl, a tightrope-walker named Lily. He has been giving her lots of attention (drawing jealousy from Rafe's friend and band-mate, Paul), and has been distracted by his pursuing of her. When he finds his sister has disappeared, he tries to chase her into the tunnel, but finds himself lost. Then he sees Lily in the Under, which is strange; she unintentionally leads him to his sister, and there Rafe finds her sitting by her mother's side. She's already dead, but Calliope was with her before she went, and they had both been able to hear Rafe banging his drum as he searched for them. Rafe leads Calliope back to the surface to complete her grieving above.
Rafe confronts Lily about what she was doing in the Under. She denies that she ever goes there, but it soon becomes apparent that she has been stealing away to take a drug called Orpheus, which is said to bring back the dead. Her own parents were in an accident in their car, though she believes that they abandoned her and crashed the car on purpose rather than have to face getting old. She goes to the Doctor and does a humiliating nude dance for him, and then the Orpheus is given to her as a prize. Under the influence of the drug, she sees her parents again and feels that she is interacting with them, hearing them apologize for leaving her. When she comes down, all she wants is to see them again, and she is oblivious to the effect of the drug on her body. She is aging prematurely because of it.
Rafe attempts to help her break the cycle, but soon she becomes too weak to even pursue the drug on her own, and he goes to the Doctor to try to get the drug for her himself, so she can see her parents "one more time." The Doctor demands a price, that Lily must dance for her prize, and refuses to give Rafe any of it. He returns to find Lily dead. They cremate her and scatter her ashes in the sea. He goes into shock, and goes down to acquire some of this drug for himself, that he might see her again. His drum-playing impresses the Doctor and his little harem of diseased, addicted women, and they give him a hit. He sees Lily again, where she warns him to stop trying to reclaim her this way since Orpheus is what killed her.
The band Ecstasia rushes to the rescue. Following Calliope's always-accurate visions, the ever-protective Paul launches a secret attack on the Doctor, invading his lair and joining up with Rafe as he attempts to play his drums for another hit. Their music drives back the Doctor's forces, and they escape towing Rafe, an unwilling participant. There they hold vigil over him, not allowing him to escape from his room until he has solidly gotten over his nightmarish withdrawal symptoms and feels mainly healthy again, ready to grieve over Lily in a less personally destructive way.
Some flashbacks occur here in the story, filling out the characters' relationships with each other so that we understand the progression of the story a little better. Paul apparently has always loved Rafe since first seeing him, and has wish to possess him despite the fact that Rafe likes women. Paul persuaded him to take a drug called Beauty and the Beast, and under the influence of that they made love. After it was over Rafe never said anything about it, but Paul could see in his eyes that they should now pretend that it had never happened, and respected his decision while remaining almost a father figure to Rafe, insisting that he adhere to strict practices in order to be a better drummer and taking care of his personal needs. Now in the present, Paul and Rafe discuss what they should do, now that they have seen what Under is like and wish they did not have such a choice before them (either go Under when it is time, or run away to the desert for a harsh life). They decide to go Under and try to do something revolutionary, but mostly they just end up going Under and scaring off the Doctor's women, and of course making their other two band members worry about them. Calliope--following her visions, of course--locates the pair, and they make a startling discovery: The Doctor is actually her and Rafe's father.
Apparently he created this Orpheus drug (among many others) to try to bring back his beloved wife, Estrella, and tried to heal others with his potions as he once had above; only later did it become a perversion, a drug. Disturbed by what this society has done to his family, Rafe decides he would rather take his chances in the desert, and he disappears in his car. The band does not follow him, but cannot play anymore without his beat. Calliope has become pregnant by Dionisio, and senses that her child will be a daughter. She decides she will call her Primavera.
Calliope begins to have visions of gardens, gardens her father dreamed of creating. Seeking the secret to making these gardens a reality, Calliope goes Under to see her father, and finds that all this time he has been trying to bring back her mother in more ways than through drugs. Also a talented dollmaker, the Doctor has been making dolls of her, and ends up making a doll that exactly resembles Calliope, except she doesn't have a soul. Wanting to possess her, the Doctor forces Calliope to ingest a single seed of a drug called Persephone, and under its influence (and with the assistance of some wires), he transfers her memories and life force into his doll of her. That he sends to the surface so that her loved ones don't come looking for her, and in this way he can possess his daughter, who reminds him so much of her mother.
Calliope is held captive below while the Calliope-creature, as they call it, lives above. Strangely, it begins to be infused with the love of the other band members, and though it is still somewhat soulless, it awakes enough to know that this love deserves to be returned. So it goes below to liberate the real Calliope, who has since delivered her daughter, Primavera. The two switch places, and the Calliope-creature tells the Doctor that she is his.
Paul sends a letter to Rafe by way of the Old Clown, who has decided to give himself up to the desert. After the real Calliope returns--with her child--the band follows Rafe out there, and shortly after receiving this "we're coming for you" note, his three friends and his new niece actually arrive in the desert, ready to join him in the difficult but illusion-less life, to be whole as Ecstasia once again, whose music can produce the lush green gardens that the dry sand lacks.
The book has a strange storytelling style, jumping back and forth between first person and third and various characters' points of view, as well as being fairly psychedelic at times (especially when the characters are on drugs), and of course it is interspersed with poetry and song lyrics, but overall the picture that Ms. Block paints with this style is enchanting and alluring. Fans of such art will not be disappointed by Ecstasia.
See also: The sequel, Primavera.