Author:Sharon Baillie

Publisher:New Libri Press

ISBN:978-1-61469-032-0


When Chapter One is presented as Chapter, the First and Chapter Fourteen as Chapter, the Somethingth, the reader is clearly cautioned that this story of a contemporary London-based family is not going to be presented in conventional terms. And indeed, the Dempseys are an odd lot, and their story is oddly told in Sharon Baillie’s Magenta Opium.

Father Dempsey gets off by playing with non-sex toys with a prostitute whom he suckles rather than screws. Son Dempsey, a bouncer with a criminal past, compensates for his dad’s infantilism by falling for and eventually marrying his father’s surrogate mum. Oedipus, anyone?

The real mother Dempsey sacrifices all for a callipygian internet date whose character doesn’t live up to his commendable butt. Crushed with this discovery, she retreats to the family home’s loft where she produces and sells pirated DVDs (like Madonna, who purportedly doesn’t want to live off-camera, mother Dempsey doesn’t want to live offline) until she’s arrested and sent to jail much to the displeasure of absolutely no one.

Daughter Dempsey, an overly sublimated chemist, gets into all kinds of trouble as a consequence of inventing and developing an improved form of morphine with seemingly limitless potential for altering the human condition. However, dosage is key, and when a private investigator dies from greedy consumption of the stuff, it’s up to daughter and son Dempsey to dispose of the body, which they do in truly Gorey style.

There is a prevailing sense of author euphoria within the pages of Magenta Opium. (I don’t for a moment believe the sincerity of the author’s observation that “The best of the best of the miserable will probably become writers and revel in it anyway”). Baillie is bright as a penny, and she clearly relishes romping through her fertile fields of vocabulary with abandon. And for the most part, the reader is happy to go along for the ride being equally tickled with the contradictions and iconoclasms that occur at virtually every turn. Among the author’s inventions are turning noun-verb combinations into adjectives, e.g., “the wife found man,” and summarizing major plot elements between a character’s given and surnames, e.g., “Veronica Is She A Genius? Dempsey.” However, in this reviewer’s opinion, these literary virtues eventually morph into vices through dogged repetition. I may have felt differently if I’d had a bit of pink powder at my side during the reading process.

If the reader makes an effort, it’s possible to extract some serious themes from this predominantly quirky work. For example, is Veronica Is She a Genius? Dempsey a soul mate of Dr. Jekyll, who must be punished for her hubris? Is she, the creator of a product so innovative as to threaten the continued commercial viability of lesser substances, the victim of the establishment as in The Man in the White Suit? Is the son’s eventual marriage of his father’s dalliance an extension of the son’s trauma in Death of a Salesman?

Dr. Baillie is possessed of impressive descriptive powers. Her account of the father’s second childhood experiences with the prostitute and the detailing of the daughter’s means of dealing with an inconvenient corpse are truly harrowing.

At one point, the author gives the reader permission to skip a chapter “at will.” Actually, I found that chapter quite good, but in retrospect there were a couple of other, more drug-infused ones, that I could have lived a full life without. These chapters could have been composed not only on a Blackberry (as the author acknowledges in her acknowledgments) but on a Blackberry under water.

Taking the omniscient point of view approach to the extreme, the novel footnotes references to films with the author’s mini-reviews of them. They are occasionally unreliable as when the skirt-furling sequence in The Seven Year Itch is described as going up to her neck and Monroe’s ecstatic expression as “pouting.”

In a work generally characterized by obsessive freshness, it is dispiriting to find a tired and tasteless word play based on the surname of a pair of recent U.S. presidents, and the following unattributed lift from Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, well breaches the barrier between homage and theft: “One death in the loft might be considered misfortune, but two is downright carelessness!”

These reservations aside, readers in the mood for a bit of Dada, spiced with a dash or two of Wilde and an interest in the capacity of English to be twisted and turned sometimes beyond the breaking point will find pleasure in Magenta Opium with or without using the stuff. If the book is ever turned into a film, the Coen Brothers would do it best justice. Who else could handle with a relatively straight face a sister giving her brother as a wedding present a snakeskin trumpet?


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