Elizabeth McClung
Arsenal Pulp Press ($17.95)

by Rod Smith

Twenty bucks says that Elizabeth's McClung's hellishly engaging first novel never makes it to film—at least not intact—which is sad. Zed not only merits cinematic interpretation, it demands it. Set in "the Tower," a rickety, 22-story apartment building more or less abandoned by the city it once occupied, the book opens with a typical day in the life of its titular protagonist: a fully emancipated (read: "urban feral") 12-year-old girl who makes a living trading everything from candle stubs and broken toaster ovens to information, drugs, and cash among the building's residents: a fascinating assortment of eccentrics, deviants, criminals, wounded souls, vulnerable crackpots, and various combinations thereof, most of whom stay simply because they lack the means to go elsewhere.

For Zed, the Tower is the world, the deal everything, and she always keeps her part of the bargain—not that she's an angel, by any means. When Charles, the toddler son of one of the building's most successful welfare moms, begs silently for a piece of the cake Zed's eating, she ignores him. Afterward, the narrator observes: "Children at best confused her, but, more often, like this, sickened her. How could they stand to be so dependent? For Charles to hold out his hand with nothing to trade, it was beyond understanding." Worse still, she's in all kinds of cahoots with Luc, the preternaturally charming drug dealer and leader of thugs who rules the building with an iron fist and the kind of casual amorality that leads him not only to take bets on future suicides, but to make them more likely.

Still, Zed joins the Father—the Tower's would-be spiritual advisor—when he tries to prevent an angry mob whipped into a frenzy by Luc from lynching an innocent man for Charles's murder. After a couple more little kids are found dead, Zed's curiosity moves her to start looking for answers, leading her into a direct confrontation with her one-time mentor and his minions and eventual building-wide catastrophe. McClung milks the novel's extended climax for all it's worth, slipping into a real-time mode that allows for maximum evocation of ancient, all-consuming evil, rotting corpses, charred flesh, and smoke so acridly real, we can feel it filling Zed's lungs—and ours.

So what's to stop some intrepid director from giving the novel the cinematic treatment it so richly deserves? Well, remember what David Cronenberg said about Naked Lunch: a literal film version would cost a billion dollars and be banned in every country in the world. Zed wouldn't cost half as much, but would easily be twice as banned—if only for the nail gun scene and its aftermath. Plus, while it offers horrors galore and a futuristic flair, it is essentially literary fiction—rich, multi-layered, and bursting at the seams with metaphor. In the end, Zed seems no less than a modern-day incarnation of Maat—the ancient Egyptian goddess of justice (or balance, depending). Luc's avatar is a little more obvious from the get-go (consider the name). Mythic status notwithstanding, both characters—and a few others who survive—are far too compelling to release after a single novel, especially one that resists closure so ferociously, practically demanding a sequel—or two.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006