Monday, January 25, 2010

Dangerous Angels

As I revealed in my 20 Questions interview, I bought a copy of Francesca Lia Block's Dangerous Angels after reading Nymeth's enthusiastic review. It was one of the best decisions of my life. This is a collection of stories called the "Weetzie Bat Books" after the name of a central character. They are like nothing else I've ever read. The closest I can get to describing them is to say that the characters are like comic book drawings come to life, at first, and then the drawings turn 3-D and you get drawn into their world...

And oh how I wish I could live in their world! There's no better antidote to the long gray of an Ohio winter than reading about Weetzie's Los Angeles, full of jacaranda, hibiscus, roses, honeysuckle, and lemon trees. Any problems the characters have are sketched, because we've seen them before, but what we haven't seen is how these particular (very particular!) characters will solve them.

Reading the wordplay in these stories is a little like hearing the latest teenage slang; you may not know why Weetzie calls her dog "slinkster dog" or why she calls a man who is attracted to other men a "duck," but it does give the stories a certain flavor.

The first story, Weetzie Bat, is suffused with her love of place. It begins:
"The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn't even realize where they were living. They didn't care that Marilyn's prints were practically in their backyard at Grauman's; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer's Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor's...."

Weetzie and her gay friend Dirk look for love, which Dirk tells her is a "dangerous angel," and the search is brief and comic, while going through all the long-drawn-out and agonized stages familiar to us all. Weetzie keeps "falling for the wrong Ducks. She met a Gloom-Doom Duck Poet who said 'My heart is a canker sore. I cringed at the syringe.' She met a toothy blonde Surf Duck, who, she learned later, was sleeping with everyone. She met an alcoholic Art Duck with a ponytail, who talked constantly about his girlfriend who had died."

What Weetzie wants, she says is "My Secret Agent Lover Man," and courtesy of a wish-granting genie, she eventually meets a man who tells her that is his name, while Dirk meets a perfect Duck, Duck. (Much later, when you're so deep under the enchantment of these stories that you don't laugh in a way that would break the spell, a further joke about his his last name is revealed.)

I was charmed by the story of Weetzie Bat, and I'm not easily charmed. Then I was pulled into the next story, Witch Baby. I started caring more about all the characters when I read Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. But it wasn't until the story entitled Missing Angel Juan that I really felt like I was getting to know one of the characters as well as I wanted to. The character I got to know is the most unlikely candidate for me to sympathize with that I can think of. She doesn't have a name, but goes by the unlikely moniker "Witch Baby." She's skinny because she has to be urged to eat. She makes things difficult for herself; she can't be like the other members of her family, who have slipped into a teenager's version of the perfect world, making a living from writing and producing movies and living together in a house they inherited from Dirk's grandmother.

When Witch Baby's unhappiness becomes apparent, her mother Weetzie realizes "I won't just stop and pay attention when someone is sad. I try to make pain go away by pretending it isn't there." Witch Baby has a "broken sound inside like when you shake your thermos that fell on the cement" because her boyfriend Angel Juan has gone away to New York City to see what he's like without her.

All of the stories have wonderful descriptions of food, but the restaurant meal Witch Baby has in New York is the one I remember best:
"This place is like somebody's enchanted living room. There's flowered paper on the walls. If you look close you can see tiny mysterious creatures peering out from between the wallpaper flowers and the lavender-and-white frosted rosette-shaped glass lights strung around the ceiling blink on and off, making it look like the creatures are dancing. On every table there are burning towers of wax roses that give off a honey smell. The music isn't like anything I ever heard before. It's crickety and rivery. The waitress has a dreamy-face, long blonde curls and a tiny waist. She is wearing a crochet lace dress. She serves us tea that smells like a forest and makes my headache go away. Then she brings huge mismatched antique floral china plates heaped with brown rice and these vegetables that I've never seen before but taste like what goddesses would eat if they ate their vegetables. Miso-oniony, golden-pumpkiny, sweety-lotusy, sesame-seaweedy."
In a later story, Dirk invites a friend home for pie and his grandmother makes "chicken pot pie with carrots and peas and peach pie for dessert. When you asked Fifi for pie you got it."

I love the order the stories are told in, in this collected volume. The very last one, Baby Be Bop, tells more about the background of Dirk and his family, and it goes farther into the dark corners than any of the previous stories, although it begins with the light touch that characterizes all of the stories:
"Dirk wanted to tell her, how he wanted to tell her, but what if the tears spilled, blue, onto her cheeks? What if he hurt the one person who had loved him his whole life? What if she said,'It's just a phase' and he had to tell her, 'It's not just a phase, Grandma Fifi. It's who I am.' And why did he have to tell? Boys who loved girls didn't have to sit their mothers down and say 'Mom, I love girls. I want to sleep with them.' It would be to embarrassing. Just because what he felt was different, did it have to be discussed?"

The seeming simplicity of the story-telling style makes it possible to say things straightforwardly without the usual complications. The story of a street kid who tells his new lover that he's "not from anywhere" is accepted without question by that lover, Duck, who "had noticed some cigarette burn marks on Bam-Bam's bare, thin arms. Parents that did stuff like that to you had to become nothing nowhere in your head if you were going to make it out alive."

At the end of the volume, the genie makes another appearance and reveals the secret of his magic, a secret that most readers know and of which we all like to be reminded, just like some of us like to hear fairy tales over and over again. A story is a dangerous angel; a story is a form of love.

Who has ever told you a story? Who will listen to your stories? If there is such a thing as a book you want to read out loud to your teenager, this is it. As a parent of teenagers I can't say I always understand, even if I have managed to stop and pay attention. But I can still tell them stories. Or at least give them this one.


Amanda said...

I'm a little scared of this series. I wanted to read Baby Bebop after all the censorship stuff in Wisconsin, but discovered it was part of a series and the series sounded too far out there for me. I've been told it's not, despite its sound, and that I should give it a try, but I haven't been able to bring myself to do that yet.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, I know you don't always share my tastes (and that you don't need the same kind of relief from winter) but I really think you should give this volume a try. As Nymeth also noted in her review, it's extremely difficult to describe but just lovely.

Betty said...

I read Dangerous Angels in college for a Young Adult Lit class and I fell in love with it. The prose was so beautiful I remember reading most of it aloud to my roommate. :-) At the time it was unlike anything I had ever seen and I wish I had read it in high school.

Thanks for reminding me of a great book. I'm gonna have to pick this one back up and re-read. :-)

Jeanne said...

Betty, I do think it begs to be read aloud!

Jodie said...

So many people say to read these because they're charming, but you really made them sound exactly like what I like to seek out - cultish, but not exclusive, with lovely characters. I want more of their world after your review.

Nymeth said...

I'm sitting here thinking if it's too soon to re-read this. Your post brought back the feeling of experiencing these books - thank you for that!

Jenny said...

I've sort of been wondering whether this is too out there for me too - it sounds like a really strange combination of cutesy and weird. It's the cutesy thing that concerns me.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, I wouldn't worry; I think "cutesy" is really the wrong word for these stories.

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