On the surface, it’s a simple enough plot: boy meets girl, then they run away together and have adventures in the big city. But there’s nothing simple about Sarah Bruni’s debut novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died. As one layer after another gets added, the plot becomes a shifting landscape that the reader explores along with her characters. And as you explore the world of the novel—which is just familiar enough to make the differences all the more unsettling—you find yourself participating in their delusions, trying to negotiate the blurry boundaries between the imaginary and the real.
Let’s start with the first premise: boy meets girl. The boy is actually a 26-year-old taxi driver who calls himself Peter Parker. The girl is the 17-year-old Sheila, who works at a gas station in the summer, dreams of escaping her small-town Midwest life, and is teaching herself French in anticipation of moving to Paris. On the night that Peter Parker turns up at the station and invites her to run away with him to Chicago, she happily participates in her own abduction and takes the name of Spider-Man’s first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Not much of a foundation for a healthy relationship, you might be thinking, but Parker’s good-heartedness and personal inexperience helps offset the age gap. And no one is calling any of this healthy, including the characters.
The couple’s adventures in the big city are supposed to revolve around their search for the man in Peter’s visions. Did I mention the visions? He has his own version of “Spidey sense”—dreams that have a frightening tendency to come true, whether they’re about his own friends and family or people he’s never met. There’s a man in Chicago who is going to swallow a bottle of pills, and Sheila is somehow connected. That’s all that Peter knows, and this time he’s determined to stop the tragedy before it can happen. However, their adventures end up consisting mostly of staying out of the eye of the law, who are understandably frantic to find Sheila, and finding work so that they can pay the rent on their semi-squalid apartment.
It’s probably no accident that this all coincides with a coyote infestation—their role as tricksters in mythology fits right into the overall otherworldliness of the book. Bruni’s use of her characters’ wishful thinking and obliviousness creates an atmosphere of surrealism, with comics providing the focus. In the comics world, a girl can become Gwen Stacy, “Spidey sense” can be real, and the questions of who dies and who lives, who is a victim and who is a hero, can be revisited. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be like your favorite hero, to negotiate the world as if the rules don’t apply to you, this book is for you.
The Night Gwen Stacy Died is available now from Mariner Books.