Buzzed Books #14 by John King
Beyond the Pale Motel
Francesca Lia Block (Episodes 30 and 64) is best known for her work in YA literature, as a revolutionary author whose bohemian gypsy sensibilities meshed with punk rock aesthetics and gave two generations of disenfranchised youth something beautiful and aching and honest to hold onto. Her fans are profoundly loyal. I discovered that work as a middle-aged man and adore it.
Her latest novel is entirely adult in nature. Gone is the occasional magic of the Weetzie Bat stories and the gorgeous, gauzy mysticism of her last adult novel, The Elementals. Instead, Beyond the Pale Motel is a mash-up of dark genres of fiction: a pulp horror novel, an erotic novel, an existential novel, a mystery novel, a serial-killer procedural novel. Overall, the effect of so many genres is that the story itself feels unpredictable. The short, staccato sentences make the pages turn, despite how Beyond the Pale Motel is so startlingly honest in its loneliness and alienation.
The novel is about Catt, a recovered alcoholic whose life unravels when her husband leaves her for the famous lover he has impregnated. A serial killer is hard at work in Los Angeles, curating portions of anatomy from his beautiful, female victims. Catt begins drinking, after sexual misadventures fail to keep the desperation of her emotional vulnerability under control. Considering the intrinsic cruelty of the world, anyone could be a psychotic murderer at heart, especially when coincidences from the murders start to insinuate themselves into Catt’s life.
Sometimes, the dark impulses of her own lust make her doubt her own mental health, long before she unravels, before she falls into the hands of The Hollywood Killer.
At that point even if I thought he was dangerous, I might have decided it was worth it. The possibility dangled by that monster, Love, was better than the slow agony of psychologically hemorrhaging to death alone.
Catt retrospectively explores her family history, the façade of her marriage, her yearnings to create a family of her own, or live vicariously through the family lives of friends. Such vivid reflections while observing the nature of her alcoholism and her extreme erotic responsiveness glimmer without hindering the plot.
The book reads slickly, yet the substance and surprises of this story, of this character, rise well above the normal book of guilty pleasures.
The problem with most serial killer stories is that once the killer is identified—once the last act is set into motion—the pleasure of reading is reduced to a binary joy. Will the main character survive, or no? Will the serial killer survive, or no? (In the case of the killer being killed, there is one more question—if the main character kills the killer, then to what degree is main character herself now a killer?) These limited questions seldom deepen the complex stories they are telling, or at least resonate with psychological depth.
Francesca Lia Block wisely eludes the grind of such a conclusion by making this last act sudden, and unforgettable.
Pair with: Seltzer.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.