Review: Mom's death forces epileptic to the city in 'Electricity'
By Ray Robinson
BLACK CAT/GROVE; 331 PAGES; $14 PAPERBACK
The enormous, shivering typeface scattered through Ray Robinson's first novel is a giveaway: This narrative occasionally devolves, or rather explodes, into overwhelming surges. The book represents them as half-syllables: ERRRMMG- gree- GREE, HEEYA! But this isn't nonsense. It's an expression of the electric power surging through Lily O'Connor's body. Lily, the book's narrator, is epileptic. Explosions that sometimes take pages of the novel have cumulatively taken weeks and months from her life.
Lily is caustic, troubled and likable. She spent her youth in a small, slightly seedy seaside resort town in northern England. Her Gypsy mother was abusive; she caused the injury that provoked Lily's epilepsy by throwing her down a flight of stairs. Lily has a stepfather and two brothers from whom she is estranged, a sympathetic landlord and a job at an arcade she manages in spurts. It's an OK life, and she fends for herself the best she can, knowing that at any moment she might have a fit.
Her periodic seizures have left her defensive and self-protecting. Worse, she experiences her life as a chopped-up series of weeks and days she refers to as a life in "outtakes."
"My body is covered with silver flecks, rips [...] I have a long way to fall and I fall a lot," she muses.
Life is punctuated by pills. Scars she can't remember getting gleam above slices of time she's lost. Despite it all, she's bold and resilient: "Thrash, get up, get on with it. That's what I say," she remarks. She leaves herself notes around her apartment to help her steady herself after a seizure. "The biggest was the one I'd written with a black marker pen. It was on the wall facing you when you came in. I wrote it there because sometimes I forget who I am or where I am. I forget where I live. DON'T WORRY HOME BED SLEEP BE OK LOVE LILY." She's added some kisses to herself: "XXX."
However, as "Electricity" progresses, Lily needs to find even more meaningful ways of caring for herself. Lily's mother dies and one of the brothers, a gambler, looks her up to say he's sold her house for a small sum of money. He disappears to a U.S. gambling tournament soon after, leaving open questions as to the whereabouts of Lily's other brother, who seems to have disappeared in London. Lily has come into some small wealth and, frankly, is tired of losing things. She is gripped by a desire to find the brother. And so, at 30, after living in fear of the most ordinary walks down the street, Lily embarks to London and perhaps beyond.
Throughout the odyssey that follows, it's Lily's voice, lurching, self-mocking and tender, that buoys the book. It's sweetly confiding, sometimes raspy, cheerfully observing both the world of her brain and the world beyond it. Her voice is by turns angry, fascinated, keenly observant, ecstatic, overmedicated, undermedicated, sheepish and alive. Lily watches her limitations with cheerful aplomb; she carries her condition with her as an uneasy but constant companion.
Almost immediately after her mother dies, she stands and gets ready for a date. Putting on her dress, she applies gobs of drugstore makeup and downs her pills. She comments: "It's what I measure my days by. Six a day. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon, two at night. [...] Like full stops and my days are three sentences." Later, after the full stops fail her and her excursion instead ends in a fit in a public park, Lily seethes and throws up her hands again. She knows her brain, the force that governs her voice, as separate from herself, but she's also governed by it. It eludes her grasp.
Later, after moving to the city, Lily's seizures intensify. When doctors change her medication, the narrative shifts, becoming more disjointed, then sluggish. This, too, is part of what makes the book memorable: its intimacy with varied states of a changeable mind. To be critical, there is something a little soggy (and perhaps also foggy and groggy) in parts of the ending, where Lily's perspective on one or two relationships seems less believable than what went before. This isn't a question of Lily's alertness (in phases she has been overdrugged), but of the novel's alertness and compassion to Lily. But these flaws don't stop the book from offering a memorable portrait of a difficult life and the world Lily sees.
She struggles with the ambivalence of living with a handicap - if there were surgery that could cure her, would she even want to get better? Both her self-awareness, and the limitations of self-knowledge, pose the question of how any of us know ourselves. In "Electricity," Robinson's got mastery of perspective, voice and interiority. There's tenderness to the way he captures Lily and records the trials and tribulations of her often difficult, ultimately redemptive, journey.