ZED by Elizabeth McClung (Arsenal Pulp), 288 pages, $22.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
I thought I was tough before I cracked the spine of Zed, a horrifically disquieting and masterfully written first novel by Victoria-based writer Elizabeth McClung. At the halfway point, I was near traumatized. After recovering from the steady literary pummelling by one evocative and upsetting image after another, I slept with all the lights on.
Did I mention that the protagonist and book's namesake is 12 years old?
Zed takes you inside a housing project called the Tower, a 22-storey building just outside a major unnamed urban centre, where the police won't respond to calls after dark. It's home to people the city would rather forget, and conventional rules of order do not apply.
Zed is a smart, tough kid who's developed her own economy of survival and complex moral code. She's likeable even while she shrugs off murder and molestation, cultivating complex relationships with adults in all stages of decline. Contained in all this chaos is a rapidly developing murder mystery: who is killing the kids?
What kept me glued, uncomfortable as I was, to the hypnotic narrative, was that Zed, both the book and protagonist, is truly original. Each page is engrossing, violently imaginative and never boring.
For all the terror that occurs - tenants throwing each other from the top storeys for sport, the who-gets-snuffed-next betting board at the drug dealer's apartment - everything that happens in the Tower seems plausible, especially during Harris's heyday in Ontario.
McClung's visually detailed and hilariously innovative characters come from all ends of the crazy/addict dead-end spectrum. No stereotypes, no altruism, no reliance on convention.
Toward the end, she seems to have thrown the characters in a blender, occasionally pressing "stop" to give us a look. It's dizzying, and could use more moments of clarification, especially when she flirts with the otherworldly.
Zed is the definition of provocative, if you can handle it, and I recommend you try.
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