I first learned of author Marshall Moore when I came across his guest post on Rick R. Reed’s site, entitled, My Open Relationship With Genre, in which the author shares his insights on genre, writing, and the state of gay fiction. While as a reader I also share many of Mr. Moore’s perspectives on genre what equally made an impression are the titles of his published works – The Concrete Sky, The Infernal Republic, An Ideal for Living. Call it this particular reader’s quirk, but I have a thing for titles, and have been known to purchase a book based solely on its title. So when I received a request from the author to review his 2013 release, entitled, Bitter Orange, I agreed without hesitation.
Bitter Orange is the last book I read in 2013, and in this regard I saved one of the best for last. It is an extremely well written, imaginative, provocative and by degrees disturbing multi-themed story that is part urban fantasy and part mystery, but is firmly rooted in contemporary reality. Through the main character of Seth Harrington, who possesses the ability to become invisible, Mr. Moore turns the more accepted notion of superhero in speculative fiction on its ear to explore the darker motivations and actions of an ordinary person who possesses extraordinary powers. The author grounds the fantastical elements of this story and Seth’s increasing confusion and anxiety about his ability to become invisible against the backdrop of the disquiet and weariness of American (urban) life in a post 9/11 and dotcom crash world. Particular to the main protagonist’s personal story is the question of whether Seth can move beyond the loss, pain and trauma of those falling towers to once again find his place in the world.
“The Department of Homeland Security would be only too happy to test the limits of my invisibility…and its applications. Think how many terrorists I could take out. All the criteria fit: violence, stealth and moral ambiguity. I’d be like a wet dream for the intelligence community. Maybe first they’d put me in a language-immersion program, get me fluent in Arabic or Farsi or both, and then they’d send me off to make the world a safer place for militarized evangelical democracy!”
Seth Harrington possesses supernatural powers and can be invisible or undetectable, but he is not a superhero. His powers only work in morally grey situations and the rest of the time he can’t turn them on and off at will. He steals a bottle of wine, uses a movie ticket stub to buy a coffee or a one-dollar bill to pay for a cell phone, as easily as he can stop a mugging or rough up his roommate’s one-night stand in a show of support, in plain sight, unseen, but only with progressively worse violence. Seth’s invisibility only adds to his confusion about his place in the world. Even though Seth fled New York City for San Francisco to start anew after 9/11, he’s still reeling from the horrors of the terrorist attacks and ambivalent about his future. Seth is at a crossroads: Can he be one of the good guys by doing bad things, or are his newfound powers part of someone else’s malevolent agenda? There are no easy answers or expected outcomes.
Mr. Moore writes in a literary style with a refined sophistication and a sardonic humour that I found beyond appealing. The story is more character than plot-driven and narrated by Seth in the third person. Through Seth’s inner voice, the author provides ample descriptions that evoke strong images in respect of Seth’s quotidian life, as well as the more fantastical aspects of his life.
From the very beginning of the novel there is a sense of ennui and malaise that emanate from Seth. He is ambivalent and in many respects apathetic about virtually all aspects of his life, his studies, his relationships, his family, his future, even though by all accounts his life is a relatively good one – he’s well educated, upwardly mobile and financially secure for someone in his mid-thirties. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that his ambivalence and apathy are really an emotional numbing of sorts, and symptoms of much deeper loss and trauma as Seth was personally affected by the events of 9/11 losing his lover Jason.
Despite the fact that Seth is intelligent, thoughtful, a relatively decent fellow, and not inherently malicious, the character also emerges as morally ambiguous in large part because of his actions while invisible. At first there is a sense that he’s using his invisibility as a game, testing the extent of his powers and hedging bets as to whether he’ll get caught committing what would be considered petty crime and theft. However, when he begins to use his invisibility with seemingly good intentions to stop a wrong, he reacts with disproportionate violence that progressively worsens, and with a disturbing absence of true remorse. Seth becomes increasingly confused and anxious about his supernatural abilities and flees San Francisco for Portland and Las Vegas in the hopes of making some sense of it all. But his escape seems to make matters worse as Seth comes to a number of emotionally difficult, albeit necessary, realisations about his life both before and after the events of 9/11:
“…He’d moved to New York and immersed himself in his high stress job… and ignored many areas of his life, naïvely assuming Everything Would Be Okay. Then the Towers fell. Happy endings: the exception, not the rule. And now this. Time doesn’t heal all wounds; it wallpapers over them. History wouldn’t look back on this decade and smile.
A thought struck him: ‘I’m setting my sights far too low. I need to cut through a lot of dead tissue if I want to come back to life again’.”
I loved the author’s blurring of the lines of good and evil and that nothing and no one is black or white in this novel. Seth is an infinitely captivating and layered character – highly intelligent, insightful and yes even sympathetic, despite the juxtaposition of some of his actions. Equally, I thoroughly enjoyed his astute and at times darkly humourous observations about American life and political and social culture and his place within it. The author unfolds Seth’s tale slowly, leading the reader down an unassuming path given what we learn about the character over the course of his story until the last portion of the novel when the author reveals the source and reason behind Seth’s invisibility in a completely unexpected twist and climatic ending. And even though we understand the why of Seth’s powers by story’s end, many questions remain and the reader continues to ponder the character of Seth and his outcome.
Bitter Orange is squarely embedded within the realm of speculative fiction, but is far from being a common superhero adventure. While Seth’s moral ambiguity in the use of his powers and his ambivalence about his life and place in the world serve as unbalancing elements keeping the reader guessing as to the story’s outcome, they also provide the freedom for reader interpretation as to the story’s underlying meaning. Beneath the surface of Seth’s supernatural powers and how he uses them, his confusion, anxiety and listlessness, I found this novel to be a commentary on the state of contemporary (urban) life and values in the United States, and the anonymity and alienation that are often inherent aspects of urban living. Through Seth’s personal journey, the author examines the capacity for anger and violence that lurks within even decent people given the right circumstances.
It is always a pleasure to come across a new author. I am thrilled to have discovered the writing of Marshall Moore, who I consider a distinct and inventive voice in speculative fiction. Bitter Orange made the list of my reading best for 2013, and I plan on making my way through the author’s backlist and future releases. I cannot recommend this book enough, in particular to readers who enjoy speculative fiction and a thought-provoking, character-driven story.