What would it mean to ram the open-ended conventions of fabulism—with its ties to speculative fiction, Bizarro and the New Weird—headfirst into the genre requirements of memoir, with its privileging of truth over fiction? Anna Joy Springer fabulates a trauma memoir of losing her bipolar lover to AIDS and, in so doing, creates a unique literary form, one that ignores the often fraught line between truth and fiction in pursuit of something more elusive. Springer’s fabulist memoir, The Vicious Red Relic, Love, fuses two competing technes into a text at odds with itself. In so doing, her text criticizes the generic conventions of both memoir and fabulism while also exposing the many ways in which we mythologize as a means of bringing order to the chaos that surrounds us.
The book features a mash-up of competing narratives and forms. One narrative layer is epistolary: a character named Nina writes letters to an elephant made of crushed tinfoil, a figure named alternately Winky and Blinky. This figurine serves as a silent sounding board for Nina’s contemplations. Note the breach of memoir’s generic conventions: The typical memoir features a narrative persona whose first name is the same as the author listed on the cover. Nina is and is not Anna, just as this is and isn’t strictly a memoir. Blinky introduces an early genre element to the text: This handmade toy is science-fictional, as Nina has created Blinky in order to send him back through time, that he might keep Nina’s lover [Gil] company at the moment of her ([Gil]’s) suicide. The brackets around [Gil]’s name continuously function to keep the character distanced from the text—even at the sentence level, [Gil] is parenthetically set off from the narrative. “I wish one thing only,” Nina writes of her plan to send Blinky back in time. “That she would have had someone, just one friend who could have watched her go. Not someone like me, who would have tried to stop her from killing herself.” This turn is typical of Springer’s re-visioning of fabulist concepts: whether in life or in story, we could never be strong enough to witness a lover’s suicide; we require a stand-in, which for Springer is Blinky. In Springer’s text, only via fabulation could someone selflessly keep a loved one company as she suicides, without selfishly trying to stop her.
Another of the book’s narratives involves a feminist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, reframing the whore who seduces Enkidu as the engine of plot, and Inanna’s descent into the underworld as a journey beginning with loss and ending with an acknowledgement of grief. Yet another narrative arc features a set of interlocking parables whose titles read like fairytales, each one the name of a forest into which the reader has stumbled: “The Forest of Good Bad Intentions,” or “The Forest of Molestation Clichés.” Each forest provides allegorical resonances that underpin the letters, scenes, and stories that surround it: “The Forest of Mythopoesis,” for instance, is told in second-person plural and is a conversation with a personified Guidebook. This Guidebook is in the process of failing to teach us how to correctly read and/or “communicate with” the text of Vicious Red Relic. Tellingly, this forest is situated between a pseudo-religious tract and a meditation on the flaws inherent in binary thinking.
Various other forms intrude on these three core narrative threads. There are how-to sections that teach the reader how to interpret the text, often incorrectly or superficially. A “corporate religion” called Synopology has scattered its conversion literature throughout the book’s pages, and the reader is enjoined to take up the synopologist’s cause (synopology being Springer’s satirical take on semiotics). Also sown throughout the book are [Gil]’s own words, though we are (crucially) never allowed to trust that these fragments are [Gil]’s actual thoughts rather than Nina/Anna’s appropriation and reframing of them.