The degree of “speculativeness” in Grace Krilanovich’s beautifully bewildering debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, is a matter of opinion—are Krilanovich’s drug-addled teenagers wandering the Pacific northwest in the nineties really vampires, or is their “vampireness” more a metaphor for a profoundly deranged inner state?
The Orange Eats Creeps never gives us a definitive answer, nor should it. The ambiguity is part of the point.
It’s not easy to craft a novel that gradually erodes the reader’s comprehension of the world, of reality and identity and the passage of time. Though the world of this novel contains some elements—marauding maybe-vampires, a lost foster sister, a serial killer named Dactyl, ESP—that sound, on paper at least, somewhat “plotty,” it doesn’t take long for these concrete features to dissolve into a kind of nightmarish scream. I always tell my students that, in fiction, the opening is a clue to the work’s DNA: not only what it is, but what it will become, where it will lead you. Here is the opening of The Orange Eats Creeps:
“Dislodged from family and self-knowledge and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way. Some call it having a restless soul. That’s a phrase usually reserved for ghosts, which is pretty apt. I believe that my eyes filter out things that are true. For better or worse, for good or merciless. I can’t help but go through life with a selective view. My body does it without conscious thought or decision. It’s only a problem if you make it one.”
What an incredibly heady, scary, arresting way to open a book. It’s also a bit sly: a standalone paragraph, almost easy to miss if one is not turning the pages carefully, and the start of the next section, which plunges the reader into the tactile world (“The sun is setting, the hobo vampires are waking up…”) functions more in the way we might expect an opening to, as a solid, tangible introduction to the setting and its inhabitants.
When I read this novel for the first time and started to feel the landscape blister and erode, I thought back to that opening paragraph, back to that voice shouting out from the abyss, and thought, Of course. Of course we would end up back here. The opening tells us that this is a consciousness that is not interested in neat questions and neat answers. Where are we? Why has this narrator been dislodged from family and self-knowledge? What are her origins? How will her sinister freedom play out over the course of the book? In The Orange Eats Creeps, the quest for answers is a viciously thrilling one.
Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award, and her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Her first novel, Find Me is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February 2015. Laura lives in the Boston area and is a Writer-in-Residence at Bard College.