Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stephen Florida (Gabe Habash)

 The most compelling horror narratives are without a doubt stories of obsession—the seminal text here being The Turn of the Screw—and often the horror comes from the claustrophobic, breathless inescapability of the character’s mind. The most terrifying film I’ve ever seen is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, precisely because it captures Norma Desmond’s singlemindedness so precisely and painfully that, as she walks into the camera, face smeared by the closeup, I shudder involuntarily.

Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is like that. Our protagonist is a college wrestler in isolated North Dakota in his final year. He wants to win, to be the first champion from Oregsburg College, so he doesn’t eat and exercises like a demon and stays focused all the time. Like with any good horror story, we need a skewed perspective, someone we trust who cannot be trusted, and Stephen is that character, even down to the fact his name is actually Steven. Many of the reviews I’ve encountered say this novel works so well because of how strongly the narrative voice drives it (praise well-deserved). Stephen is funny, charming, strange, and disgusting all at once, like the handsome gentleman two tables over at dinner who suddenly sucks all his snot back up his nose as loud as he can. Riveting.

The standard approach to a story like this one would have been 250 pages of wrestling terminology, of visceral descriptions of the body and injuries, bloodlust writ large. As boring, dumb readers, we are dazzled by specialized knowledge, loving walking away from fiction feeling like we glimpsed into the catalogued aspects of a specific reality. Indeed, Habash includes scenes just like the ones I’ve described, and they’re enthralling for their technicality and rhythm. We are wrestlers when we read these parts because it is impossible not to steep yourself in these descriptions, to not lose your body and your mind to the pursuit of greatness.

We flit from these topics to others with ease, though: the carnality and masculinity of our main character are simply components of him, not defining features, and so Stephen tells us about the jokes the team makes about him and Linus, the freshman star wrestler; he tells us about his pledge not to ejaculate anymore; he pees on the heads of passersby a flight of stairs below him. Sentences later, we hear about Stephen perusing the SAT prep guide to learn new words, or his meditations about jazz and art.

There’s a richness to Stephen’s character, a fullness, but it feels off-kilter and askew. Like any good horror story, the way Stephen is forces us to ask questions about how people operate, whether Stephen is doing it or if it’s just pretend. Are his interests—any of his interests, including wrestling—genuine, or are they programmatic, suggestions from other people he takes on to fill his brainspace? Behind the depth, we have suggestions of a gaping, ponderous vacancy. Is there anything more terrifying than confronting a void, mental or otherwise?

Stephen’s influenceability—or willingness to be influenced—elevates the story because Habash uses it to take our protagonist down dark mineshafts. The narrator’s contact with other people warps his world as he consumes their suggestions and ideas: there are these nightmarish, quasi-surreal tangents we go down involving gorilla masks, career services, suspected murders, a specter called the Frogman, and resurfacing Australian aunts. They are spirals, tornadic black scribbles in the margins. They build and twist the tension, near-infinite turns of the screw, and they never resolve, to the point that we nearly feel as though we’ve drowned in Stephen’s chaos with him.

These offshoots of his demonized perception are madness, and there can be no resolution to madness. In perhaps Habash’s boldest commitment to the horror genre, the book continues for just a few pages after we’ve found out the results of Stephen’s final wrestling match. In a normal book about obsession, the 250-pages-of-wrestling-and-nothing-but version, this is where it ends. But this is a horror novel, I keep saying, so we glide past it and finish with a chilling, ambiguous non-ending that cracks the storyworld to pieces.

Rather than a book about wrestling, I might suggest Stephen Florida is a story about a person addicted to obsession that chronicles his horrifying hoarding of multiple interests at once. How much can a human brain withstand? How much reality can still filter through those mental thickets? It’s funny and scary, compelling and off-putting, and the end result is like considering a diamond: it’s beautiful, but how much blood was soaked into that stone? Gabe Habash won’t tell you—he’ll just show you the one spattered drop of blood on the backside and let you figure out the rest. And that’s what horror is.

My rating: 5/5