REVIEW: Black Cloud by Juliet Escoria

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by Benjamin Rybeck

In a 2013 piece for The Guardian, the actor Russell Brand, a recovering addict, wrote that his problem wasn’t drugs and alcohol, but reality. The characters in Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud are the same way, which is to say that their problem is everywhere, all the time. For them, reality is a constant, gnawing headache. They work shitty jobs and float through empty relationships.

Reality leaves them unfulfilled. Reality makes them boring, and bored.

The book opens with “gnats and mosquitoes” swarming a narrator “in black clouds,” but considering everything else swarming around in this book, the narrator is lucky she gets to deal with the bugs — something concrete, rather than existential.

Drugs become a way to beat reality back, and Escoria’s characters divide their memories into two columns: when I was using and when I was struggling to stay sober. Of course they have no idea what to do with their lives, but then, it’s hard “to have foresight when you’re spending your nights on your back with the room throbbing inside your ears.” Their attempts at connection resemble the date between Melora Walters and John C. Reilly in Magnolia, full of awkward kissing and desperate confession, ending in tears. “I started using meth the way most people do,” the first sentence of “Glass, Distilled” goes. “One day our dealer was out of everything else.” It feels less like an opening hook than like a stranger trying to bait the reader into sticking around for one last cocktail.

This is an edgy, intimate book that lends itself easily to questions of autobiography.

At several points, Escoria seems to intentionally blur the line between character and author by punctuating the stories with photographs of herself in vulnerable moments: underwear-clad, or in her bathtub, or hugging her knees to her chest. Turning to each of these photographs, the reader might feel compelled to apologize for intruding. In some ways the collection feels like a book-length version of Sky Ferreira’s album cover — click here to take a peek — and Escoria shares Ferreira’s guise of direct — almost aggressive — vulnerability. She wants the reader uncomfortable. She wants the reader ready to say, “I’m sorry.”

Escoria gets by on voice and attitude a lot, but her writing feels most accomplished when she uses narrative as an anchor.

One of the highlights of the book, “The Sharpest Part of Her,” sketches the entirety of its narrator’s adolescence with a drug-addicted mother, capturing “her cigarettes, glass and paper, always something being drawn to her mouth that wasn’t me.” By the story’s end, the narrator makes it to adulthood and her mother cleans up, which would feel happy if the story didn’t then turn, in its final moment, toward the impossibility of forgiveness.

Black Cloud is, of course, a depressing book. Yet, I return to the first story, “Fuck California,” in which a young woman says “I love you” and means it, or at least “thought [she] meant it.” The story ends with the narrator tricking herself “into thinking the roar of the jets was that of the waves, and the lights on the landing strip were, in fact, stars” — anything to deflect attention from reality. I wonder whether Escoria is familiar with Erika M. Anderson and her song “California,” which begins with the lyrics “Fuck California,” and ends with her begging “you please to look away.” It’s what so many of Escoria’s characters want — for someone to look away. But at least it means somebody was looking in first place.

To purchase Black Cloud, click here to be directed to CCM’s site.

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