I’ve always considered myself a post-modern guy – well, ever since I knew what it meant, anyway. And to its credit, this novel has forced me to reconsider my philosophical affiliation, and giving some serious thought to dropping the label altogether. Maybe I’m an old-fashioned romantic at heart after all.
Vic Cavalli’s The Road To Vermillion Lake is a puzzling affair. Relying heavily on a symbolic narrative underscoring a disjointed and fractured storyline, it’s difficult to pin this book down. As a story, it’s incredibly slippery, and frustratingly impenetrable. For what it’s worth, it has a weird beauty to it – steeped in a cloy, sticky bubblegum fantasy of human emotions, wrapped in cellophane. It’s certainly colourful; in fact, Cavalli splashes colour so extensively on each and every page, that if you were to start a drinking game every time you hit a hue, you’d be drunk two chapters into the book. Then again, that’s not a bad thing per se; it is called Vermillion Lake, after all. Just beware of the pinks and purples; they’re a doozy.
More than once, I was struck by the impression that this is a writer’s book, so much more than it is a reader’s book. And as such, two potential reviews vie to be written. On the writing side of things, it’s densely packed with post-industrial mysticism, it’s philosophically explorative, taking archetypical characters, breaking and boiling them down to their constituent elements, analyzing and reinterpreting any unexpected results in an attempt to decode the underlying superstructure that is the human condition.
When read from a reader’s perspective, The Road To Vermillion Lake is a bit of a mess. The characters are bereft of any real… character; all their thoughts and actions are closely informed by their author’s demands – like porcelain puppets on string – not getting across any kind of relatable motivation or internal rationale. Over and over, they act in ways, speak in ways that just had me shaking my head, thinking: ‘I cannot imagine anybody reacting that way!’ Tom, the male lead is a thoughtful bloke who nevertheless seems surreally aware of his own cookie-cutter stereotype of a hunky construction worker, while refusing to be anything other than a passive vehicle for whatever Cavalli wants to happen next. Faced with this hyper-erotic, corporate Joan Of Arc-type maiden called Johnny, he – as well as the story – become putty in her hands. Every time she opens her mouth to deliver another husky, pained line of what is obviously meant to be romantic dialogue, I’d swear I can hear a dirty saxophone blaring in the distance like a foghorn, like I’m stuck in some kind of warped, neon-sprayed noir version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
And Tom just rolls with it; every illogically forced, contrived, domineering little bit of it. And then it hit me: This is what Twilight for men looks like. Johnny has a constant need to tell Tom exactly what he’ll be doing for the next 50 pages without truly asking him for his opinion, forcibly interjecting his name every ten sentences. The ridiculously wistful monologues of burning desires itching beneath a heavy-handed veneer of medieval chastity; Johnny is the female version of Edward Cullen and Tom makes for a fine Bella.
Rounding off this obligatory, post-mod love-triangle is Sally; Johnny’s not-quite twin sister and Tom’s earstwhile high-school sweetheart, conveniently knocked out of the picture by a stray boulder that totals her car, as well as her life’s memory. A nifty solution, as it frees up our lead to forget about her and his adolenscent fixation with her perfect mouth, and hurl himself towards a life of improbable wedlock with her spitting image; while Johnny swoops in to care for her and to start redesigning her sister’s memory not to include her soon-to-be husband. Shockingly, all goes well, and a blissfully clueless Sally goes off to join the convent. Wait! What was the point of having her in the story to begin with? I think she would have made for an interesting protagonist, and I feel some potential was wasted there. The proposed reconstruction of her character sounds demeaning and not emancipating in any way. Instead, it represents obvious attempts to cut-up and recast a particularly spent literary archetype of femininity to the shape of Cavalli’s own design. Which is fine, of course, but not really groundbreaking work.
It’s difficult to make out whether the bizarrely mundane moods of Cavalli’s treatise of plastic philosophy are just intended as hypercharged, post-modern allusions to our heightened state of cultural consumerism – deconstructivist pastiches of the life-styles we devour in TV-adds, popcorny blockbusters and glossy magazines – or whether they are actually just the product of uninspired writing.
Okay, let’s get down to what really matters. Is it a good book? I’m not sure. Either The Road To Vermillion Lake is miles ahead of the competition, valiantly pushing forward into the literature of the 22nd century, and I just can’t see it; or, it’s an incredibly highbrow exercise in composition that skyrockets past any imaginable audience straight into the literary firmament above.