"Sip" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by Soho Press
Written by Brian Allen Carr
2017, 304 pages, Fiction
Released on August 29th, 2017
In a distant region of Texas, a teenage girl crosses an arid plain toward some weathered train tracks. Her steps are slow but deliberate, knowing exactly where an invisible line lies. As she nears the line, a bullhorn barks a warning in her direction from a nearby tower. They say they will shoot if she gets any closer. She gets closer.
The girl casts no shadow.
This is the introduction to the world of Sip, a dystopian horror western from Brian Allen Carr. Carr might be best known for some of his novels that catch the reader's attention before the first page has even turned, like Motherfucking Sharks from Lazy Fascist. My introduction to his work was through the short story collection The Shape of Every Monster Yet to Come and the novella The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World, both of which are as evocative as their titles. Carr's stories are filled with sharp simplicity. It's the kind of elegant bare-bones writing that wreaths a miasma of flesh around itself with the subtlety and grace of its cruelty. He trades adjective-filled tirades for the brutality of the day-to-day. His stories are often set in Texas, which makes itself known through the characters rather than the description. They are not the stereotypical rednecks and cowhands, but real people who retain only a portion of a trait we consider "western" – the selfish impulse to survive, at any and all costs. You read through them and think, "If this guy ever sets to writing a full novel, we're all fucked." He did, and we are.
As with his other writing, Carr doesn't drag out the same tired tropes over and over until they're flayed into a shape deemed "acid western". His concepts are strange and unique, and the plot of Sip is no different. Taking place over a hundred and fifty years into the future, the world has been change by a discovery not by scientists, but by junkies. A child discovered you could get high by drinking your own shadow – not a metaphor, but literally bending down into the dirt and sucking at the darkness cast by your form. The practice ran rampant, with addicts running around sucking the shadows of other people – children, the elderly, whoever cast a shadow. If your shadow is sucked up completely, you become an addict like them, scouring the world to suck up other shadows or go insane. While society fell apart at the seams, the remnant of civilization retreated into domes, where the light cast no shadows and the addicts were kept out. On the outside, the ones left out in the world descended into chaos.
That is where the story begins, with Mira, the teenage girl mentioned above. She lives outside the domes, scraping through life in the Texas heat, caring for her ailing mother, who had her shadow taken entirely. Mira supplements her mother's health by sucking up portions of shadows from animals she can talk to, depositing them in her mother's mouth like a penguin feeding its young. While Mira abstains (and can even control her shadow at will) her friend Murk is different – a full-blown shadow addict, his eyes dark pools of limpid black. Crippled from mutilation by violent gangs, he lives the minute-to-minute life of a junkie, sucking up his own shadow and watching the years pass by. It is the result of the incident that introduces the story – Mira's trespass at the train tracks – that starts the story rolling. Bale, the "domer" who refused to fire at her, is exiled into Mira's world due to the harsh rules of the people who fear the shadow addicts. When they meet, a series of events is put in motion that will propel all three characters toward a new understanding of their world, as Halley's Comet begins its return journey toward the Earth.
The characters of Sip outshine even the bizarre premise of the story. They create a world that is unmistakably American, full of unwritten rules, universal truths, and full of the vestiges of puritanical thought. Remember, in this world the apocalypse happened long ago, way before the lifetimes of any of the characters. They don't mourn for a world they lost, or even for a world they won't know. They simply endure, taking action where and when they can, even chasing false hope across the plains. Their survival is noble in that it builds on the present rather than looking toward a future in vain. They have no illusions about changing the world, but that doesn't stop them from adding their piece to it. In a way, this nightmare world reclaims something lost on our own time, where distraction has become both a means and an end. Despite all that happens, the comet reminds them that this moment is just that - a moment in time, intangible but precious, an opportunity to continue a story started long before you - to live.