Globe and Mail Review of Zed by Elizabeth McClung
The agony and . . . well, the agony
By Elizabeth McClung
Arsenal Pulp, 280 pages, $24.95
Born in Victoria, B.C., and currently living in Wales, Elizabeth McClung gives us a first novel to dissect the heartfelt and flay the familiar. I'm still in recovery.
Zed inhabits a padlocked concrete room in the basement of a crumbling, filthy, 20-storey apartment tower filled with drug addicts, scammers, perverts, cat murderers, welfare poor and the mentally ill. It's a war zone abandoned by peacekeepers. Beside Zed's bed is a box holding her emergency supplies: "cigarettes . . . cocaine, three leather-bound books, a box of candles, two bottles of whisky, and $1,624."
Zed is 12. Unfettered by family or back-story, she lives by feral cunning, the point of a switchblade and a thriving trade in found objects. Suspend your disbelief; this story expertly employs the implausibility of life -- the muttered "unbelievable" as you read the morning paper.
McClung's story engine races pedal-to-the-floor, fuelled by dialogue that moves from hard-boiled to mock-poetic, from profane to outright hysterical. In the first 100 pages, dwellers in "the Tower" experience a suicide, a bathtub drowning, the grisly murder of two boys, and the tossing of two men and several cats to their deaths from the roof.
Other residents merely get sliced up a little. Scraping human remains from the pavement, a city cleanup crew debates whether the cops should be called. Police and do-gooders gave up on the Tower long ago.
Secondary characters (those surviving the first act) include drug kingpin and all-round puppet master Luc, a bookish Professor, a spuriously pious Father, a maggot-infested dumpster diver named Rat, a loopy resident psychic and a Buddhist pothead. Not one is to be trusted.
Groceries come no charge. "The Truck had two hands painted on the side, along with the phrase, Feeding Each Other. The Townies paid to have it driven out here every two weeks, filled with the bounty of dented cans and items just past expiration date. . . . There use to be a food shelter downtown . . . until property prices started to fall. After that they decided to deliver."
As the truck arrives and residents battle for their share of weevily rice and stale doughnuts, the scene recalls news clips from Third World famine zones.
Things move to outright horror. Zed discovers a sacrificial altar in the sub-sub-basement, surrounded by an audience of seated corpses in varying stages of decay. It's Luc's secret psychopathic playroom. We move on to the Feast of the Dead.
Mysterious cuts of meat are consumed. The meal is preceded by a spectacularly sordid orgy, which Zed and a few others observe from a darkened doorway. Now we're firmly in allegory territory, but the animals are light years from the farm.
Luc needs some information that Zed won't share. He sets out to make her talk. His method involves a frame of four-by-fours, restraints, a knife, salt and a power tool.
McClung's unorthodox use of a 12-year-old may at this point lose her some readers -- and that will be a shame. If you can hang on through the agony and absorb what comes after, something rare will happen. You'll be shocked and appalled by a Canadian first novel. I don't mean offended or dismayed. I mean pierced through your self-preserving heart with a nail gun. Anger is finally what McClung wants from you, and she'll exact it. The anger is equally hers, and (if her afterword is any indication) it's personal.
This is a novel for all innocent victims; especially children, though they shouldn't be left alone with it. Zed is a tale to be pondered by all those who wield power over the vulnerable. McClung's plot twists and images wrestle the emotions before the intellect can pin them down, but when her message at last emerges from the blood and bedlam the effect is devastating: Terror begins at home. Then it grows.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.