Dermaphoriaby Craig Clevenger
Bailed out and holed up in a low-rent motel, Eric finds the solution to his amnesia in a strange new hallucinogen. By synthesizing the sense of touch, the drug produces a disjointed series of sensations that slowly allow Eric to remember his
Eric Ashworth awakens in jail, unable to remember how he got there or why. His only memory is a woman's name: Desiree.
Bailed out and holed up in a low-rent motel, Eric finds the solution to his amnesia in a strange new hallucinogen. By synthesizing the sense of touch, the drug produces a disjointed series of sensations that slowly allow Eric to remember his former life as a clandestine chemist. With steadily increasing doses, Eric reassembles his past at the expense of his grip on the present, and his distinction between truth and fantasy crumbles as his paranoia grows in tandem with his tolerance.
In Dermaphoria , Clevenger creates a visceral world where divisions between love and loss, violence and tenderness, and fact and fiction prove to be less discernible than they ought to be.
“I swear to God this [The Contortionist’s Handbook] is the best book I have read in easily five years. Easily. Maybe ten years.”
–Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and Choke
“Clevenger has produced an utterly persuasive and compelling novel, combining the zest and enthusiasm of a new voice with the craft and the guile of a veteran.”
–Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting
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By Craig Clevenger
MacAdam/Cage PublishingISBN: 1-93156-175-3
Chapter OneI panicked and swallowed a handful of fireflies and black widows the inferno had not. Shiny glass teardrops shattered between my teeth while the fireflies popped like Christmas bulbs until I coughed up blood and blue sparks, starting another fire three inches behind my eyes and burning a hole through the floor of my memory. A lifetime of days, years, minutes and months, gone, but for a lone scrap, scorched and snagged on a frayed nerve ending and snapping in the breeze:
Hard as I try, a given recollection's pictures, sounds and smells, synchronized and ordered first to last, are everything but, swarming back through the cold hole in my brain where they hit the waning light and crackle into smoke. Others wait until dark to show themselves. I can hold a picture's fragments together for a lucid half second before a light shines through my eyes and they scatter, slipping between my brain's blackened cracks. One memory after the next turns yellow at the edges and crumbles to flakes at my touch.
I smell rotted pulp, old newspapers crawling with silverfish, the dank, dissolving bindings of books I don't remember reading. The stench gives me chills that turn to sandpaper on my neck and shoulders. My back burns if I lean the wrong way and I feel bandages but I can't touch them. My wrists and feet are cuffed to a chair in a room built to the stark schematics of my own head. Peeling walls the color of fingernails, cement floor, an overhead light with an orbiting moth. I'm alone with three machines. Two are on pause behind me, a third speaks into a telephone near the door.
"I miss you, Snowflake ... I love you too ... bunches ... bunches and bunches ... yes, Mommy too," his baritone whisper like the rumble of a distant train.
The machines are good. Whoever made them has all of my respect. Stunning detail in their faces, each loaded with a databank of behaviors for random interval display, all manner of mannerisms from coughs to sniffs, synthetic-cartilage knuckle cracks, biting lips and picking nails. The odor of static, the electric smell from a bank of new television sets gives them away.
"When I get home ... okay, I will. Love you ... bye bye, Snowflake." Faint dial tone, the ping ping of the doomed but determined moth against the lightbulb, then the machine sits in front of me.
"My daughter's been sick and I've been on overtime." He speaks to me as though I'm a sleeping child and he's about to kiss my forehead. He slides a cigarette from a pack with gold foil and some French name I can't pronounce.
"Haven't seen her for three days." The snap of his chrome lighter chimes like a coin hitting the pavement. "You smoke?"
He's engineered for sincerity and affection. The two behind me hide their eyes behind dark glasses, but his are exposed and big, liquid brown, radiating trust along with his voice. He wears an oiled-back, matinee-idol haircut and a tailored suit the deep blue of beetle wings and from across the table my eyes can feel the fabric, soft as a baby bird's throat. He's wired to smell like breath mints, cigarettes and expensive aftershave.
A tentacle of smoke gathers into a cloud overhead. It dissolves in the air between us and the smell stings my nose.
"No." Conscious of my manners with him, I correct myself. "No. Thanks."
"I wasn't offering. Word is you can't remember to chew before you swallow. I'm just seeing for myself. How 'bout it? You remember smoking? Maybe falling asleep after a few drags?"
Shaking my head hurts, pulls at my skin.
"You did it on purpose. Covering your tracks?"
His circuits pause midbreath. The smoke above freezes into a ball of cobwebs. The moth is eavesdropping and I can hear the blood moving through my ears.
"You have any idea why you're talking to me?"
"Pieces of an idea." My blood beats louder and I think I'm going to be sick, "Who are you?"
"My name is Detective Nicholas Anslinger."
The slack in my chains is barely enough for me to reach his outstretched hand, sheathed in a synthetic polymer, mimicking my own skin.
"You can call me Detective," he continues. "Tell me these pieces."
I remember fire, but not starting one.
"I can't remember," he says. "I've heard this before." His brown eyes don't blink. They stay locked onto me. The damp draft unfurls a ribbon of cigarette smoke and coils it around my face.
"Let's start with the spiders. How many have you made and how many are still out there?"
Which is stranger, that Anslinger thinks I'm God or that he can chain God to a wheelchair beneath a spotlight?
"Try this," he says, leaning forward, "we found the galaxy."
He's right, I am God. It's all coming back to me. Darkness and light, floods, seven days and angels feuding amongst themselves for my favor. I lost my temper and the firestorm killed my precious dinosaurs. Work it out, learn to compromise, I told them. After the platypus, I disbanded the committee and stayed solo. This created resentment, a permanent rift in the organization.
Anslinger reads from a notebook, "1964 Ford, two-door, hardtop, candy apple red Galaxie 500, registered to one Eric Ashworth. Fully restored, if you don't count the blown back windshield and scorched paint." He snaps the notebook shut. "Nice ride."
I'm not God. I'm Eric Ashworth. It's all coming back to me.
No, it's not.
My head goes dark so the bugs will come crawling out. I squint through the blackness. I remember the sound of God cracking open the sky and shaking the earth. A ball of fire rising from a flaming house. Nails melting like slivers of silver wax. Beams and shingles collapsing into a pile of burning dust and the earth spitting them into the air. The angry fire boulder rolls down from the sky toward me. I run, choking back the spiders and fireflies fighting their way up my throat. More bugs will drop from the air at any second. Armored insects with polished, carbon fiber heads, giant eyes that shine like black mercury and can see in the dark.
A phone booth surrounded by nothing, and beyond the nothing, darkness. An invisible swarm burrows into my back, chewing through my skin as I call for help from the phone in the middle of nowhere. A light hits me from behind. I turn, face to face with a six-foot storm trooper mantis covered in armor plating, locked onto me with black goggle eyes. I crush it with the heavy plastic receiver before it eats my head and learns everything I know.
As little sense as this makes to Anslinger, it makes less to me.
"Your car was the only vehicle parked outside that house, of which there is nothing left. You assaulted the state trooper who found you at an abandoned gas station talking into a dead telephone. You were about an hour on foot from the burn site. The middle of the night, you could have died of exposure."
"I killed a bug." The bandages burn, my mind's eye sees a stretch of oily black blisters and the healthy skin peeling back like the paint on these walls.
Pieces come together. Okay, I've got it. They crumble apart. I move my thumb, then try to remember moving my thumb. Got it again. Play each preceding second one by one. Whole minutes, chunks of hours follow suit, binding to the fresh fragile moment before until the sequence holds.
My feet and wrists strapped to a bed frame surrounded by bags, tubes and beeping boxes. A machine dressed in white lets me suck on ice chips and says I'm going to be okay. They cut skin from my legs and sewed it onto my back, he says. Another machine in white asks me questions and shows me photographs so I can make up stories for them. I draw pictures, work puzzles and piss into cups. The machine gives me a notebook. Writing things down will help my memory. The first machine slides a syringe into one of the tubes. I follow the surge of liquid down to the crook of my elbow but nothing's there but a wad of cotton held with tape, my hands cuffed below a metal table and Anslinger sitting across from me.
My brain tries to kick-fire itself into working again. Nanostorm lightning burns the memory nest to a cinder, the drones thrown to their backs, legs kicking the air.
"This is the part where we sweat you, tag team good cop, bad cop," Anslinger says. "Those are the rules, right? Not my style. You're not in good shape. You rest for a while and we'll talk again."
Anslinger grinds out his cigarette.
"I've been looking for you, or someone like you, for some time. Beginning to think you were an urban legend. Don't take this the wrong way, but it's good to finally meet you."
Excerpted from Dermaphoria by Craig Clevenger Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Craig Clevenger was born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in Southern California, where he studied English at California State University, Long Beach. He currently lives in San Francisco. Dermaphoria is Clevenger’s second novel, following 2003’s word-of-mouth phenomenon.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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After reading 'Handbook' I was looking forward to this follow-up. Initially, I found Clevenger's descriptive & bizarre rambles interesting. Then, tiresome. Finally, I decided to read it from a poetic point of view and that eased the pain of lacking plot lines. However, it was all absolved with Clevenger's ending, even if I had to skip many pages to get there. DO NOT read before Contortionist Handbook.
I can't believe that this is the same author who wrote the Handbook, its so confusing and there's virtually no solid story line that runs the entire book. Then he goes on rambling about non-sensicle things that aren't related to the story at all, I know the main character is suppose to be on drugs and hallucinating, but I've read better books where the character gets high on drugs all the time (fear and loathing in las vegas). If you haven't read any Clevenger books yet, Read the Contortionists Handbook and avoid this one.
I read one review on this book and it went something like, 'it's not the ending, so much as how you get there.' I couldn't agree less with this statement. This book is confusing at parts, and nothing short of strange in others. Clevenger tries to do what Burroughs has already done with Naked Lunch, but it was worth it for the ending. One of the best, and most powerful endings I've read in a book. Nothing short of beautiful and intense. If you liked The Contortionist's Handbook, I'm fairly certain you'll enjoy this book, though in my opinion it doesn't quite live up to the Handbook.