Published in San Francisco Bay Guardian, Nov. 2005
Basically this book is pretty fucking rad. It’s a succession of semilinked stories blending Trinie Dalton’s obsession with proto-punk rock stars, animals, and horror movies to form her amazing and fake autobiography, Wide Eyed. After the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” helps her to drown out the sounds of lobsters being boiled alive and later to cope with her mother’s remarriage, Mick Jagger appears to our narrator in a vision, and she explains to him how Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered sperm by looking at his own semen under a microscope and dissecting rabbit testicles. In “Decrepit,” Dalton and her roommates, living in a house inhabited by a ghost, enact a play about a giant maggot, which threatens to grow so large that it suffocates the residents. “The maggot play was meant to be retro like Godzilla or King Kong – one of those huge creatures dominating humanity stories,” Dalton writes. “But we were wasted on Xanax, dressed in red dresses and red feather boas, so it had a New Wave feel … ‘I vill crush you,’ said Heidi in a low Krushchevian maggot/dictator voice from behind the door. ‘I am zee maggot.'” After all of this temporal compression, it is fitting that Dalton makes the ghost a po-mo poster child: “Eras run into one ageless mess. Ghosts live in different eras simultaneously.”
Dalton’s family and real-life boyfriend, as well as various places she’s lived, make repeated, although wildly distorted, appearances in these stories. When Dalton spoke with me from her home in Los Angeles, she cited a long tradition of autobiographical writing that isn’t exactly, um, true but maintains much of the author’s personality, perspectives, and life details, which is part of what makes even the book’s most fantastical elements feel like they actually happened. “I think it made me feel free to say whatever I want without having the labor-intensive job of creating characters,” Dalton said. “I wanted to convince myself the stories were real.”
While the narrator often seems content to do nothing but sit on the porch drinking beer or get horny watching salamanders in a mountain stream, and is someone whose greatest ambition is to be a “puppy rancher … designer of fantasy postal stamps [or] an incense critic,” Dalton herself has been quite busy. After several years teaching in LA high schools that were too poor to afford textbooks and taking on second and third jobs to make ends meet, Dalton has now tossed her considerable energy into her creative projects. In addition to publishing her first book and editing her zine, Werewolf Express, Dalton cocurated the current exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (“Werewolves, Cults and Sarcastic Hippies”), and McSweeney’s recently released a book of artists’ interpretations of the amusing and vitriolic notes she confiscated from her students. Dalton is a visual artist as well, and her cover art for Wide-Eyed serves as an example of what sarcastic hippieness might mean, with ludicrously over-the-top Lisa Frank-style New Age images of unicorns shooting rainbow lasers out of their horns and a sasquatch with illuminated lotus chakras.
Like Aimee Bender’s and Kurt Vonnegut’s, Dalton’s writing is so unusual and enjoyable that only in retrospect does one realize the disturbing and complex ideas and themes it presents. Dalton pits the narrator’s intelligent innocence against the world’s brutality, sometimes in the form of sexual assault, at other times against a danger dredged from the subconscious of horror films. During a stoned teenage slumber party, a biker demands that she remove her underwear. He sniffs it sensuously, hocks a loogie in it, and then demands that she put it back on. Yet the narrator continues to extend compassion to unlikely candidates, visiting a lonely, sexually aggressive vomit fetishist in the hospital who responds only by saying “I like your tits.”
“The early movies I watched were the American classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Hellraiser movies,” Dalton explained. “Not that I think life is actually like that, but I like the drama and sexual tension in it. I think the females being the victims in some of these stories has to do with wanting to analyze female stereotypes in horror movies.” While works like Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws examines both the oppressive and empowering aspects of movies of teenage girls sawing up serial killers, Dalton’s stories seem to take that criticism and turn it back into good, sturdy narrative.
In addition to her refreshingly unusual subject matter, Dalton has a fantastic command of language. As in the work of David Foster Wallace and Tom Bissell, each new sentence feels capable of nearly anything while still carrying on the story. Lines such as “I host a Mick Jagger movie marathon every three years, which begins and ends with Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus featuring Brian Jones and Marianne Faithful, sick from just having aborted the baby that would have been Mick’s” seem more absurdly obsessive on each rereading. Also check out the great eye for detail: “When we shoved the cats away there was this little pile of butter scalloped into a pyramid shape by their sandpapery tongues. Land O’ Lakes, unsalted – with the box where you can tear off the Indian princess and fold her knees into her chest area so she has major hooters.”
Part of what makes these stories so appealing is that Dalton writes not only about what she knows but also about what she loves and obsesses over. Some of the stories even function quite successfully as inventories: occasions when she’s witnessed blood spilled on tiles, a list of unicorn trinkets observed on a road trip across Texas, and recollections of “soft dead things” – from deceased pets to the contents of upscale fur shops to threadbare steering-wheel covers.
“I was trying to figure out if I could make fiction a little more like visual art,” she writes. “More and more I just want a lot of visceral and interesting bits of language that can evoke ideas or feelings in a reader without telling them what to think.”