Raise a glass to the acid western. It’s a subgenre that derives much of its power from alternately subverting tropes and undermining them altogether. If you’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, then you know the drill: a familiar setting—sparse population, lawlessness, a potential for violence—with more than a little concern for altered states and the grotesque. The recent resurgence of interest in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work suggests the acid Western is gaining ground; novels like Colin Winnette’s hallucinatory Haints Stay and Rudy Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder tap into a similar sense of mood and imagery. The acid Western aesthetic can be spotted further afield as well: in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher and its television series adaption, and in Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England.
There’s a whole lot of acid Western in the DNA of Brian Allen Carr’s novel Sip. Admittedly, this isn’t the first of his book about which that could be said: 2013’s Motherfucking Sharks was set in a landscape that could be read as a surreal version of the Old West—or a postapocalyptic landscape in which something has gone horribly wrong with the world. (And by that, I mean: sharks can appear out of nowhere on land, with feeding on their mind.) But Sip pushes against several categories at once: it makes use of a stunning speculative concept, it creates a surreal futuristic landscape, and it heads for the metaphorical and metaphysical in abundance. But at its core is something Western, and something Weird. It’s a high-concept story that never loses sight of the grit.
At the core of Sip is a haunting concept: what if people developed the ability to drink their own shadows? And what if, once they’d exhausted their own, they decided to try their hand at quaffing the shadows of other people? The ensuing obsession, violence, and horror leads to a radically reimagined version of society, in which the bulk of humanity lives within massive domes, in which light can be carefully controlled so as not to prompt an epidemic of infectious shadow addiction, and the desperation and bloodshed that generally follows.
While the domed cities that populate Sip’s landscape make for a powerful image, Carr largely confines the action to the raw landscape outside of them. Dramatically speaking, it’s a curious choice—it makes sense that the outlands would be where the dangerous people go and the real action’s happening, but at the same time, having such a striking location in this fictional world and not spending more time there seems strange.
Carr’s language takes on a deliberately archaic quality in describing the novel’s action. After a short introduction to the shadow-drinking concept, which posits it as something that might be mystical or scientific or entirely without a rational explanation, the novel properly opens. “The sun was up, so the dark could start,” Carr writes. “All about the ground, all in the same direction, shadows sprawled.” It’s a stark use of language, very much in the post-Cormac McCarthy school of ominous minimalism. But it’s also a reminder that, while this is a novel set in the future, its concerns are much more ageless—the fears of the past surfacing hundreds of years later, in new and ominous forms.
The novel’s plot is a kind of quest narrative, bringing together a trio of main characters as they explore the landscape. Two of them hail from the land outside of the cities: Mira, who spends her days stealing shadows from animals and bringing them to her ailing mother, who needs their sustenance; and her friend Murk, who’s missing a leg, craves the taste of shadows, and has a fondness for an ancient Doors album. They’re joined by a man named Bale, who is exiled from the dome for an act of compassion.
That absent leg points to the visceral paradox at the center of this novel: for all that it deals with the ephemeral qualities of shadow and light, there’s a whole lot of blood shed over the course of the narrative. One of the creepiest details of the world of Sip is that one of the properties of shadow addiction relates to, well, severed limbs. In one passage, Carr describes a machine from which arms and legs hang; they’re deprived of blood briefly, then jolted back to life, which renews their shadows. The description of it is surreal, suggesting something out of a David Cronenberg remake of Near Dark.
“Mostly, the thing housed legs, which dangled from a crossbar that they were fixed to with hooks, tied into the circuitry of the system with hoses that seemed red, but were in actuality see through, filled with blood. These appendages drooped from their housings, live nerves fidgeting meekly.”
Sip’s three leads certainly fall into the realm of bold types: Mira is the caring daughter; Murk is the unpredictable addict; and Bale is the newcomer in a world that’s alien to him. As with many an acid Western, this novel feels more about tone and location—and its unsettling central concept—than it does as far as an intricately arranged plot is concerned.
In the end, that’s more than enough. Carr’s novel exists in a consciously discomfiting overlap of genres: the location is science fictional; the concept is fantastical; and the grit of the setting reads more like a Western than anything else. Its weird energy and penchant for hitting certain visceral notes carries it to a host of unsettling places. Cue up an Earth record when you’re reading this one, and keep an eye on your shadow. Much like this book, they’re unpredictable things.