What is it with devastating gloom on this year's Orange Prize shortlist? We've had a five year old masturbating to images of torture in Nancy Huston's Fault Lines; the slow death of a whole country in Rose Tremain's The Road Home; and the violent, terminal breakdown of a family in The Outcast by Sadie Jones. Now we've got a twelve year prostitute and heroin addict in Lullabies for Little Criminals. I must admit that the cumulative effect is exhausting. (Although perhaps I shouldn't complain, after disliking Patricia Wood's Lottery for being too upbeat!) Those critics of the prize who enjoy denouncing it for focusing on small-scale domestic themes will no doubt be disappointed by the very serious, contemporary and, dare I say, depressing subjects this year.
But, wait, I'm straying somewhat off topic. I meant to start this post by saying something different altogether. That is: I think Heather O'Neill's debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals is going to win the 2008 Orange Prize. I'm going to be bold about it: if I were setting the betting odds, it would definitely be the front runner. Because I'm not, William Hill has Rose Tremain ahead at 2-1, and Charlotte Mendelson at 3-1, which suggests to me that they're favouring the list's biggest names without having read them. Heather O'Neill is 6-1 at the moment, but watch this space, she's going to come through from behind. Lullabies is a great, bold novel, a sucker punch in the guts of the shortlist, and I recommend it unreservedly.
Baby is twelve years old, barely more than a child but already well aquainted with the wide world. Her father, Jules, is a junkie, barely older than I am now; her mother is long dead. The part of Montreal in which she has grown up is all street corners, peopled by prostitutes, and parks hung about with dealers and addicts. Her childhood is puntuated by Jules' mood swings - from his sweet, needy embraces and childish game-playing, to dark, brooding, destructive withdrawals - and the all-too-frequent moves they make from one seedy apartment to another, always one step ahead of debts, vendettas and deals gone wrong. Dressed in ugly, ill-matched hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army, and ostracised at her school, she makes the best of things by refiguring the tiniest pleasures - a present from Jules; a good homework grade - as a moment of grace. The rest, the abandonments, and disappointments, and everyday tragedies, she normalises.
Events that would derail characters' in other, less subtle narratives flit by unremarked. Her story, told in the voice of Baby's some-time future self, is unrelentingly horrific, filled with violence and drug abuse, but is delivered with such imaginative, dry-eyed aplomb that it is difficult to pity her. Her lively similes and pitch-perfect analysis denies condescension. O'Neill's purpose is not that we should patronise Baby, and cry out in our liberal horror 'oh shame, that an innocent girl should grow up in a nest of vipers'. Her resourceful creativity, and the way she rationalises her lifestyle, demands that we accept something fundamental: that she is just a kid, responding to her environment.
Lullabies is, essentially, Baby's bildungsroman - the story of her growing up, of her adolescence. Like many early teens, she experiences it as a sort of leap of faith, a blind searching in the dark, always aware of an abyss somewhere up ahead. She feels her way along intuitively, trusting people she shouldn't and allowing them to take advantage of her because she has no road-map, no plan and no one to guide her. Early in the novel, when Jules is admitted to rehab under a court order and Baby is driven to visit him in the dark, she perfectly expresses the magnitude of her situation:
It was dark by now... In the temporary illumination of the headlights, the insects were scribbling out messages from God that we couldn't get. You couldn't see what was up ahead. How did you know the universe still existed a few feet in front of the car? How could you know that God was continuing to imagine it all? How could you be sure that he hadn't forgotten about the road and that you wouldn't soon be driving into nothingness?
It is not that Baby's is a Godless world, it is that it is a pattern-less world. She lives a life without boundaries, grounded by very loose moral codes, so that the usual trauma of adolescence - the feelings of being alone; rejected; timeless - are especially acute for her. We often speak of teens loosing control of themselves, and being unable to properly understand the repercussions of their choices, but Baby has never had any control over her life, and nobody she knows has ever accounted for their actions. Her father is psychologically arrested in peevish rebellion; her closest friends are in similar positions to herself. Her path forward is inevitable: petty crime, juvenile detention, drugs and, eventually, prostitution.
It is to O'Neill's credit that I didn't become frustrated with this state of affairs. I often do. The spiralling desperation of Lewis' character in The Outcast, for example, became tedious - he is so misunderstood so often that it starts to becomes a cliche. But Baby is rarely misunderstood. She spends a fair amount of time in foster care, both in a children's home and with a family, but although she is happy in these new environments, they do little to stop her descent into delinquincy. Why? Because the things that are wrong with Baby, are also wrong with her numerous carers. They can't form healthy relationships, or make rational decisions, either. To us, she is shocking; to them, she is just another kid like the dozens of kids they know and like the kids they once were. There is no point at which Baby can be 'saved', and this is the enormous strength of the book. It redirects our gaze. Instead of looking to the plot for salvation, or for destruction, we simply look at Baby. Sweet, disgusting Baby is just herself: a voracious reader, eager to learn, and a house-breaking junkie whore.
O'Neill's character study is almost forensic in its focus; she peels Baby down, sinew by sinew. She does not judge; morality is virtually absent from the novel. It is much more about looking, seeing and experiencing than it is about coming to conclusions or learning a lesson. So, when Baby's male counterpart, Theo, takes her on her first house burglary, we witness it in a sort of ethical vacuum. Baby isn't being 'bad'; it never occurs to her that what they're doing is wrong. She barely judges herself for any of her misdemeanors. When she turns her first 'trick', she disassociates it from prostitution:
I didn't even feel like a prostitute. A prostitute stands there all night looking for people. A prostitute wears a sparkly silver jacket and high heels, not a tacky winter hat and snow boots. But I always had offers... There was something about me that made it obvious what I was doing.
Implicitly this means that Baby can a) never be redeemed, and b) doesn't need to be redeemed. It is a completely refreshing, and completely terrifying, take on the city underworld.
This is not to say that Baby wants to be any of the things she becomes. She never aspires to them, or consciously pursues them. On the contrary, she has a sense of what she doesn't want to become. The first time she takes drugs, she doesn't like the feeling of nothingness it gives her. She might be driving along a dark, godless road but she doesn't want to dissapate completely:
I had that feeling you get when you step outside after it snows. Everything in the world was dead and quiet and calm. You wouldn't be stunned by anthing in this state. A magician could cut you in two or pull doves out of your pocket, but you wouldn't be surprised. There would be nothing horrific in life, but then again, there wouldn't be anything wonderful either.... Some people wanted to feel this way, but I didn't.
In a fit of passion she decides that she will find a way to exist in the world without them. But her feelings of prohibition aren't strong enough. She doesn't abhor or fear junk; in fact, she associates it with her father's moments of brief peacefulness:
I never thought I would end up doing heroin. I don't think I did it because of Jules. I think we both did it for the same reason, though: because we were both fools who were too fragile to be sad, and because no one was prepared to give us a good eough reason not to do it. In any case, I never thought of heroin as a terrible, frightening thing. I remembered how Jules loved me best when he was stoned. That was still my main idea about junk somehow.
And she understands that, despite everything, it means belonging, and people to love, and a voice to speak with. It fills her with a sense of her own power: It was a gift. Everytime I smoked up, these pretty phrases and ideas just popped into my head. Usually I went around with so many ugly insecure things flying around in my head that when a pretty thought came to me, it jusually died a lonely death, afraid to come out. But when I was high, I simply had to utter it.
It doesn't help that Baby falls in love so readily. It isn't surprising, given the circumstances. Teased by her father's occasional outbursts of paternal caring, she longs for a permanent family - a father, a mother, a brother. Her friend Theo, whom she meets at a centre for difficult kids, is the latter. The reader knows he is on a one-way street to either homicide or suicide, but to Baby he is just perfect. Even lovable. Partly she is attracted to his hopelessness - like all sad girls, she falls for the saddest men she can find - partly by her fellow-feeling. Then there is the part of her that has fallen in love with his (routinely abusive) mother, whom she longs to hug:
They were the arms of a woman who had eaten a hundred delicious cakes and pastries to get them this comfortable. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed tighter. I wanted to feel every part of my body touched by her. We stood like that, just hugging for a long while. Afterward, at home, I felt guilty about having let her hug me. I felt violated and dirty, as if I'd raped myself. Falling in love with a mother like that was about as low as you could go in this world.
More than anything Baby wants to find things to admire in her world, because that is what makes it bareable, and often she chooses her role models poorly. But we understand, from the way she describes them, the special, almost spiritual hold that they have over her:
I was always kind of smitten by women. Probably because I never had a mother. The women that I was most crazy about were the young drug addicts. They'd be sitting on the hoods of cars late at night wearing white leather jackets with wide flaps and jean shorts. When they were stoned, they'd always smile at me. They had smiles that were so sweet and tender... They were always laughing and talking hard and being funny.
Seen through Baby's eyes these sad girls are transformed into paragons of femininity. Almost anyone can look like an angel in hell. This is also true of Baby's pimp and 'boyfriend', Alphonse, a veritable god from her vulnerable standpoint: He had intense gravitational force. He was like Saturn because Saturn has so many moons. If I kicked my shoes up in the air, they would go into orbit around him.
Part of the process of novel, and of Baby's development, is the rending of this veil of wonderment. Her narrative reaches its apogee when she realises that Alphonse is just a pimp, and probably a paedophile, and that she is just one of his many prostitutes. She doesn't judge herself for it, but she, suddenly, sadly, sees her situation for what it is. The great tragedy of Lullabies is not to be found in its events, but in Baby's reconciliation to them. As she inches towards thirteen years of age, there is a painful dawning of reality. She is no longer a child; she is growing up. But becoming an adult is the worse thing that could happen to her. She can be a prostitute, an addict and the scum of the earth, so long as she is bathed in the innocent normalising glow of childhood. The change is a startling, painful revelation:
Suddenly I realised that I wanted everything to be as it was when I was younger. When you're young enough, you don't know that you live in a cheap lousy apartment. A cracked chair is nothing other than a chair. A dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk outside your front door is a garden. You could believe that a song your parent was singing in the evening was the most tragic opera in the world. It never occurs to you when you are very young to need something other than what your parents have to offer to you.
Before, in her innocence, Baby describes how she is propositioned by a client when she is playing outside in the streets with a friend. In the middle of a game in the snow, a man pulls up and she goes with him to have sex against a wall in some seedy hotel room. She says: It was like a bump in a ride on a roller coaster. As a child she is resourceful, tough and can adapt to almost anything. But with hindsight, as an adult, she understands her position better:
When you're young, sex doesn't mean as much, it isn't sacred. Children make the best prostitutes because they're the most perfunctory about the whole encounter. The whole act is like a dare, like kissing a frog or something. It's nasty while its happening, but you forget about it soon afterward. And sometimes it isn't even that nasty.
Lullabies is the best kind of thought-provoking fiction. It forces nothing upon the reader - no gloss; no textual cues. Instead, it unfolds itself gloriously in Baby's whimsical, delightful, dreadful child's patois. O'Neill makes the unreal, unnatural and abnormal seem so real, so natural, so normal that we forget all the tropes of misery memoir that the synopsis calls to mind. We forget the cries for sympathy, the desire for revenge; we even forget the call to bring about social change. We remember instead Baby's lived experience, her vivacity and her lack of self-pity; and we take away something better than indignation. We're left with a sense of personality, and of a cruel world. With that comes a greater willingness to engage with Baby for what she is, and not what our values would turn her into.
Can you tell I'm thoroughly impressed? Go, read it.