|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Nnedi Okorafor on The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
May 9th, 2012
NALO HOPKINSON IS THE AUTHOR of four highly regarded SF and fantasy novels — Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Midnight Robber (2000), The Salt Roads (2003), and The New Moon's Arms (2007) — and an award-winning story collection, Skin Folk (2001). She has also edited or coedited four significant anthologies: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000), Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (2004), and Tesseracts 9: New Canadian Speculative Fiction. Now an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, Hopkinson has just released her first novel in five years (and her first marketed expressly for young adults), The Chaos. A chapbook titled Report from Planet Midnight, which includes short stories and an academic essay, is scheduled for release in July.
In The Chaos, Sojourner Carol Smith, better known as "Scotch," feels she doesn't belong anywhere. The daughter of a black American mother and a white Jamaican father, she is constantly mistaken for white. When she was in ninth grade, Scotch was targeted by bullies because of her mixed heritage and the fact that her body developed early. The hazing was so bad that she had to change high schools. Now in the eleventh grade, she's cultivated new friendships and earned a bit of status. Things are looking up.
In far too many teen novels, the main character's friends reflect a sort of social ideal reminiscent of the classic '80s movie The Breakfast Club: characters are put into easily recognizable — and not so easily relatable — boxes with labels such as "Jock," "Nerd," "Bad Boy," "Pretty Girl," "Weird Girl," "Sidekick," and so on. Simple archetypes for inevitably simple stories. Thankfully, just as real life isn't so simple (or boring), nor is The Chaos. For starters, it's clear that this tale is set in the real world, and the real world is diverse. One of Scotch's best friends is Ben, who is proudly gay. The other kids she hangs out with have a revealing plethora of names, including Tafari, Ayumi, Jarmilah, Glory, and Panama. Scotch even has three classmates (two male and one female) who form a harmonious romantic threesome. Scotch is straight, and upon the request of her best friend Ben, she is also an on-and-off member of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Nonetheless, she would rather talk about neo-soul singer Me'Shell Ndegéocello and the rapper Katastrophe than about politics and demonstrations. She spends her time bickering with her best friend Glory over Scotch's now ex-boyfriend Tafari and practicing with her dance team for the forthcoming dance battle.
Hopkinson does an excellent job rendering the relationships among these characters believable and interesting, from casual scenes at home to a big blow-up argument. In the beginning of the story, it was easy to forget that this was a fantasy novel because nothing magical happens. Then, during Scotch's dance practice, you learn something odd: she keeps seeing "Horseless Head Men" (bodiless horse-like heads with big "square-toothy horsey grins"), and they appear more and more frequently as the days pass. At first, only she sees them, then, well... Also, Scotch has a secret. Over the last few weeks, an icky-sticky black substance has been splotching up her skin bit by bit. She broke up with her boyfriend Tafari because she was ashamed of it.
The weirdness really begins as soon as The Parents leave for the weekend and she goes with her brother to a poetry slam at a bar. The worst problem isn't the fact that she's underage, nor is it the guy who hits on her assuming she's white; it's the giant rainbow bubble that starts inflating under the stage. As it swells at an alarming rate, Scotch urges her brother Rich to touch it, upon which he disappears. Soon after this, a volcano rises from Lake Ontario, and complete chaos splashes across the city and world, altering reality in insane ways. Houses begin to walk, strange creatures roam the streets, Singing Santas croon the weather. It's the type of whimsical nonsense you find in Alice in Wonderland, except it's not a dream and people are dying. When I was recently in Tobago, I met an old man who told me that he'd once seen a giant rooster with a flame over its head stepping out of the water. This bizarre yet believable story gave me the creeps, and I had a similar feeling while reading The Chaos.
The Chaos shares some similarities with Hopkinson's debut, Brown Girl in the Ring, which tells the story of a young woman in a near-future Toronto. Hopkinson is known for fusing Caribbean folklore and history with elements drawn from the fantasy and SF genres: Midnight Robber, for instance, is a science-fiction novel deeply based in Trinidadian folklore and written entirely in mild patois. The Chaos operates in a similar vein, though it's more Toronto-rooted than Caribbean.
The novel has only two minor weaknesses. First, it occasionally loses its sense of place and plot. Scotch is continually whisked along by random events that occur so quickly and consecutively that there are long stretches when all she can do is react. As a result, she comes across as a very passive character. I also sometimes found myself unable to understand the logic of The Chaos. It was not that I needed all the strange events explained, just a few key ones. Still, the story is a unique ride through, beside, and over the unknown. Hopkinson places you on a great wave of magical mash-up. By the time she spills you back on land, you'll have grown fins.