Gareth R. Miles’ Soul Shakedown wasn’t on the list of contemporary weird novels I set out to review. This “metafictional adventure” was published in 2020 by the author; it fell into my hands through auspicious circumstances. Much like Jon Basoff’s The Drive-Thru Crematorium, a work of contemporary “bizarro” fiction, Soul Shakedown isn’t strictly weird, but belongs to a related genre, speculative adventure fiction.
Born in London, raised in Georgetown (Guyana), and having lived in Venezuela, Brazil, the U.S., and Whales, Gareth Miles is a citizen of the world. As the reggae MC SKS de Arrowhead, he raps about social justice and labor rights with a Rastafarian perspective. Soul Shakedown, his first novel, brings his Rastafarian philosophy and progressive politics into fiction.
The novel’s narrator, “five foot five, oddly-proportion, pug-nosed Compton Sharpe” (37), lives in East Orange, New Jersey with his father, his girlfriend, “calm polite studious Sammie” (20), and their baby girl, Angie. As the novel begins, Compton has taken a new job at the De Lancey Institute, a science lab which employs him as a janitor. His work–endlessly polishing wooden panels around the laboratory–is easy enough, but baby Angie begins to suffer from an inexplicable illness. She becomes unresponsive–not comatose, but vacant, as though she weren’t all there. Desperate for a solution, Compton organizes a meeting with his best friends (soul mates), Jackie, Chopper, and Patricia. Jackie’s an organic intellectual, full of history and ancestral knowledge; Chopper’s more physical, an expert at karate; Patricia’s special power appears to be sexiness (“She look so much like a goddess I surprise she ain’ got eight arms,” Compton explains (30)). This group, along with Sammie, Pops, and Compton himself, band together to rescue Angie from whatever seems to be stealing her personality. For reasons that are not entirely clear, they immediately determine that Angie’s loss of spirit is being caused by the De Lancey Institute. The scientists who work there are something like Ol’ Higue, a figure from Guyanese folklore who travels through electrical sockets and “does suck out yuh blood just like vampire” (30). Most of the novel’s actions occur on a single night, when this group raids the laboratory.
Soul Shakedown is ambitious. It provides an original idea and a rare narrative perspective; but elements of the narrative, plot, and speculative concept sometimes work against each other in the wrong way. To understand what does and doesn’t work, we should recall this novel’s most significant ancestors, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954).
Born in 1920, Tutuola grew up in a farming village outside Abeokuta, Nigeria. He received six years of formal education in English and was working as a blacksmith for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria when he composed his first and most famous novel. It is very weird for two reasons. First, Tutuola wrote in English inflected by a Yoruba dialect. Grammar and spelling follow speech patterns rather than traditional English prose structures–a feature which was considered disgraceful by some of his contemporaries, but which caught the attention of Dylan Thomas, who championed his work. Tutuola’s use of non-standard English puts these novels in a long tradition of vernacular prose. From Robert Burns and Mark Twain to Kamau Brathwaite and Irvine Welsh, the English literary tradition has included this counterforce–the English of the colonized. (Brathwaite terms it “Nation language.”)
Second, the novels are narrated by ordinary Nigerians who become lost in a parallel world–a land of the dead which both intersects and overlaps with the modern world. Its characters derive from Yoruba folklore, but they do not linger in some premodern age. Their lives are much like those of living Nigerians–save for the total insanity and intense violence that permeates this alternative realm. As the Rev. Geoffrey Parrinder puts it in the introduction to Grove Press Edition (1984):
It has a nightmarish quality of its own, and one feels the bewilderment and fear, repugnance and despair, and also intoxication and exaltation, which one would expect to experience in the company of ghosts.. . . One goes with the author in his waking nightmare. . . The unknown bush with its frightful spirits . . . is a dreadful place. Fairy tales can scare, but this is more terrifying than Grimm as its matter is more serious and is believed in by millions of Africans today. (10-11)
Note the last sentence here: I don’t know what specific social phenomena Parrinder has in mind, but the swerve to contemporary beliefs hints at the hallucinatory quality of Tutuola’s work. The synthesis of verbal energy and modern folk tale has a psychotic effect; for the protagonists and the reader, reality becomes utterly unreliable. The world is so ordinary and outrageous by turns that you have no idea what might happen next.
Soul Shakedown owes a clear debt to Tutuola’s novels. It is written in Guyanese English and draws on the folklore of Guyana while presenting a Rastafarian cosmology. It combines this narrative style with transportation to an alternative reality–a soul world which sometimes resembles Tutuola’s bush of ghosts.
With these similarities in place, the difference between weird and speculative fiction becomes more comprehensible. We can distinguish between these fields by considering that weird fiction depends upon realism. It establishes our own ‘real world’ before hinting at a puncture of that reality. At the other end of this spectrum is pure fantasy–the narrative that is set in a fictional world. The term speculative fiction originally designated worlds between these two poles. Speculative narratives were often set in alternative histories, for example, or in fantastic worlds that bore certain “realist” elements (such as an urban setting, contemporary technologies, etc.). But there is also an affective register that distinguishes these genres. Whereas weird or fantastic stories condense affect around “could it be?”–the hesitation, delight, or dread upon discovering that the laws of reality may fail–speculative fictions organize our interest around “what if?”–they tend to be more akin to science fiction in this regard. Weird fiction disorients; speculative fiction orients us in a partially alternative reality. Tutuola’s fiction does both; although it’s focus is on world building, it remains intensely weird. It’s dynamic revolves around encountering the impossible. Miles’s fiction is speculative. It’s interest is an explanation of the incredible. Although Soul Shakedown establishes a contemporary “real world” setting for its characters, it is not particularly invested in it. Miles’ investment is in the exploration of a singular idea (and, like most novels, the presentation of a sentimental education).
The speculative world is built around a delicious concept. This thing called soul. The practice of soulfulness saturates Compton’s world. It can be seen in the ancient Timehri (Guyanese rock carvings) Jackie describes and felt when listening to “Natural Mystic” on Bob Marley’s Exodus. Most importantly, it is lived in moments of positive intimacy. Compton’s growing up, trying to be a good man. His mother has died and he’s moved in with his father; he’s planning on proposing to Sammie and doesn’t smoke weed around the baby. His narrative often focuses intensely upon the family dynamic, as though searching for moments of soulful connection. One occurs early on:
Is Sammie who break up the bad vibes. She just walk up and rub he pon the shoulder. One ting I love bout that gal, she never stay mad long, and when she calm down, she got a talen for leeching the rage outta big-nostril bull-people like me and Pops. [. . .] I ain’ say nothing, I just walk up and put my arms round both a’ dem and pull us all together. I kiss Pops pon the cheek and Sammie pon the mouth and Angie pon her lil nubbidy-nubbin of a nose. (21)
Getting high, Jackie expostulates a theory. Although our souls inhabit our bodies, they also live in a soul world. This soul plane resembles our own in a crucial way: souls are part of a food chain; soul beings eat soul food; their shit is what we know as personality. Angie’s soul isn’t getting the proper nutrients, somehow–hence her lack of animation. Indeed, “Natural Mystic” is the only thing they’ve found that wakes Angie from her stupor. As Compton puts it,
Jackie practically break-dancing in he chair as he expound pon the meaning of all this. “You see how is true wuh I been tellin you Comps? Chops? Eh? Bout how de riddims got a power, man, a heavy heavy power! Dem does call up de ancestor spirit, and watch now how they callin back she spirit! Dat is why ah does always tek care is wah riddims I selectin at a dance! Cos you callin up spirits man, and you ain’ waan call up de wrong ones bai-“… and so on and so forth. (39)
Compton is skeptical, but when they get to the lab, Jackie’s theory proves true. Angie’s soul is being stolen by the corporation. The laboratory is actually an enormous machine, a soul vacuum, or maybe a sort of soul fishing hole, that allows the creatures passing for scientists to feed on the neighboring population. They’ve been siphoning off bits of Compton’s soul (which rubs into the wood when he polishes it) and through him they got to little Angie, whose a very soulful little girl. As Compton puts it, “I ain’ get hire fuh be a janitor, I get hire fuh be a . . . nutritional supplement” (97).
Compton’s crew soon discover that the only way to free Angie’s soul is by attaching to the machine. Compton goes first. The middle three quarters of the novel occur in the soul world he enters. Each person sees the soul world according to their own memories. For Compton, it’s the Georgetown of his youth. At least, it appears to be until he notices a weird atmosphere:
The sea brown and choppy like always, but it got something. . . stagnant about it. Like it lackluster. It ain’ galloping towards the seawall at full battle charge like it use to. It kinda groaning towards shore, like is a onerous task and it almost too weak to do it. And is not only the sea; everywhere me look, tings is just… low energy. […] The donkey I now see pulling a cart down the road below me manage to seem like it shambling even though it trotting, and the two guys on the cart look like they dozing with they eyes open. They fine fine too, I notice as they pass by–so skinny they ribs stickin out like famine victims. (58)
This part of the soul world has been colonized by soul eaters, who have addicted the population to really shitty soul food. The food has almost no soul content whatsoever–it’s not nutritious or flavorful. Compton, who is soon joined by his father and Sammie–and later by his (deceased) mother–hatches a plan. They will get their friends on the outside to send them high quality soul food through the machine. They will distribute it to the population. The miserable souls, grateful for real soul food, will help them free Angie.
That’s the speculative idea, as I understand it. The Rasta solution is to organize against the sheriff by finding a way to feed the people. Soul food will reenergize their personalities and fill them with gratitude. It is delicious. In Fantastic Fiction, Todorov points out how many fantastic fictions begin as puns made literal. This literalization of the metaphor is a common operation of Freud’s “dream logic,” and Miles’ soul world is dreamy, at least at first. There is a moment where the characters actually discuss opening up some kind of vending stand on the beach, moving their food to the soul-starved inhabitants of this once-happy realm. Compton’s personality–skeptical but easily amazed, loving but selfish–could encompass such a plot. But Miles’ world isn’t that subtle. Perhaps with a nod to Tutuola’s world, the spirit plane proves to be a frenzied, grotesque place. Bodies grow and shrink at alarming rates and everyone seems to be in a feasting frenzy or clubbing each other. For example, when the trapped souls get the high-quality food:
As for the obese, basketball-stomach ones now–I lil concern bout dem. I ain’ know if they bodies could take it, the way how they knocking the food back. I got visions of dem just exploding . . . Turns out I ain’ had no need to worry though. At first, they whole structure puffing out alarmingly, til dem resembling human hot-air balloons. But after couple minutes, they flesh start shuddering and rolling around like is magma bubbling up in a volcano, and just like how lava does solidify into volcanic rock, is so they blubber start solidifying into solid soul-sinew. (137-8)
The soul world’s physics are more comic-book than dreamy, more flat than atmospheric, more “mission-oriented” than memory-based.
In The Weird and the Eerie (2016), Mark Fisher insists that “weird fiction always presents us with a threshold between worlds” (28). There is much to be written on the contours of alternative worlds in weird fiction: several have been discussed in previous posts. The most literal “threshold” is the portal. In pure fantasy, such as Narnia or Hogwarts, the portal is given a specific location. (At the weird end of the spectrum, we are more likely to find stories which merely hint at the possibility of some other place. Machen’s The White People, Blackwood’s The Willows, and Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock are notable examples.) Science fiction of course supplies many technological portals, probably the most famous being H. G. Well’s time machine. In Soul Shakedown, the portal seems ordinary enough; as far as I could tell, it resembles the machine in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986), but with wood paneling and upgraded computers. This suggests that the soul realm is experienced as a sort of virtual reality. While Compton’s inside, his body’s motionless, protected by his friends, who are operating the controls. But inside the machine’s world, at least for Compton, there is no equivalent portal. At one point, however, he does travel from the soul world to a higher plane of soulful existence. (This is accomplished by dreaming and in the dream becoming a ghost, which then travels through a beam of light into a more ethereal zone.) Portals within portals.
So far, so good. But in the second half, it falls apart. I blame the action adventure plot. The whole time that Compton’s in the machine, we have to imagine that his friends are racing against the clock in the real world–sooner or later, their break-in will be discovered. They haven’t got all night. At least at first, there’s no way of telling how the soul world’s temporality might correlate to the real world sequence. But then they begin communicating and hatch all kinds of plots. The time constraints creep into the soul world, which ends its dreaminess. We end up in an action movie. Speculative fiction can handle an adventure plot far more than weird fiction. The speculative idea may be relayed through any number of conventional story lines. Weirdness, by its nature, favors the unknown outcome. It is hesitant, curious, uncertain, introspective.
This issue is compounded because Compton is not an action hero. He observes deeply–this is the essence of his soulfulness. When he takes a bite of the high-grade soul food, it’s a serious trip. He’s ingesting Chopper’s soul; as it washes through him, he experiences pieces of his friend’s life, sees things through his eyes, shares his bodily memories. Compton describes the experience for three or four pages, and it’s some of the most enjoyable writing in the book. The idea needs Compton’s careful yet joyful description. But meanwhile, Compton’s constantly reminding us that time is of the essence; the entire plot demands it. I kept wishing that the plot followed the rhythms of Compton’s voice. The use of Guyanese English patois is not disruptive. In this, it departs from Tutuola’s “broken English,” which mixes, very deliberately, with the grotesqueries of the ghost world. (Welsh does the same thing in Porno and some passages of Glue, when the narrator’s brogue feels like an assault upon the linguistic empire.) This choice makes sense, because Compton’s a friendly narrator, always ready to offer insight and insight into his insight. But in the latter half especially, this narrative style doesn’t jibe with the action sequences, which become frequent and extended. By the end, Compton’s back in the lab and everyone is Kung Fu fighting, literally.
NEXT UP in the Weird Fiction Review Series: Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World (HarperCollins, 2018).