Blood makes me squeamish. Not a kung-fu movie’s squirting ribbons of crimson, but show me a needle puncturing skin in close-up, or a single drop tracing a red helix down someone’s arm, and my stomach climbs into my throat.
Lenore Zion’s dizzying debut novel, Stupid Children, contained many such back-shivering, put-the-book-aside-and-take-a-deep-breath moments. In the second chapter, Jane, whose mother died when she was an infant, comes home from a day playing in the park to find her father bleeding out on the kitchen table. The son of a pedophile, he finally reached his breaking point and sawed open his throat with a knife. (Oy.) Ten-year-old Jane manages to call an ambulance before her dad dies, but when he’s deemed in need of psychiatric hospitalization, she ends up fatherless anyway.
Jane’s new foster parents—the pant-suited, pill-popping Connie and the moody, one-legged Martin—appear normal to outsiders, but secretly belong to the cult of the Second Day Believers. The Believers hold bizarre tenants, starting with a baptism in a tepid tea of water and animal intestines. (Back away from the book once more, taking deep breaths.) Many of their grotesque rituals reek of paganism, and involve bits of dead cow. Midway through the novel their paraplegic, elderly leader, Sir One, decrees that Believers must “retain [their] godly fluids” —not pee—so that they might develop a second spleen, which he claims to have. Instead, many develop urinary tract infections. Even the cult’s name, as Jane describes it, is crazy:
…the Second Day refers to ‘the day after stuff happens,’ or some such explanation. The day after stuff happens is apparently both profound and enlightening, and according to the members of my new cult, all the ‘answers’ could be obtained on the Second Day. What questions were being answered was another matter entirely—a fact I discovered after I was penalized for daring to inquire.
Though their penalties are horrific, Jane continues to ask questions and hold her own opinions. During a rap session in cult school, Jane shoots down a classmate excited about motherhood by saying that children are stupid. How else do you explain stupid adults? She asks the group. They have to start out somewhere. Her disdain and strength of character set her apart from the sheepish adults and traumatized foster kids, and standing out is never a good thing, it seems, in cults.
Reminiscent of a protagonist in an early Haruki Murakami novel, Jane is a passive agitator, an active observer. She does things, sure. But for the majority of the story she’s a rock in the cult’s stream of BS—strong, immobile, and observant as the crap flows by her. She doesn’t resist their bizarre tactics, but she doesn’t swallow their ideology either. This is as troubling and interesting to the cultists as it is to the reader. I found myself both admiring Jane’s strength while wanting something more from her, a mano e mano confrontation with her nefarious foster-mother Connie, for example.
Ah, but that smacks of those kung-fu movies I mentioned, whereas Zion covers far more realistic, and troubling, ground here. The cultists are sick, twisted, and utterly believable. No surprise, as the author holds a PhD in clinical psychology. Zion endows her protagonist with a social scientist’s sharp eye and love of observable fact. Even Jane’s metaphysical pondering are logical—when speculating on life after death she compares the soul’s fate to the decomposition of the body’s matter. This sometimes has her sounding more like a textbook than a person: “Socially acceptable bathing patterns are interesting in that they have been very much influenced by the post-modern era,” for example. But her cool, level voice pairs well with the hot insanity of the characters around her.
In fact, I found Jane such an interesting person to be around, I wanted to spend more time with her. Jane is the best of narrators, in a sense, taking us where the heat is, moving quickly from horror to horror, and yet I wonder what might have been gained if Zion slowed down a bit, giving us, and Jane, time to digest and process the shock of the events at hand. While Jane’s emotional distance and hyper-critical self-awareness help her resist the cultists’ attempts to break her spirit, she sometimes came across as a bit too reserved, too in her head and not in her gut, even—especially—when she’s up to her neck in animal guts.
As Jane makes clear, her experience with the Second Day Believers is only a more extreme version of the shit we all go through in life. “You’ve got your histrionics, your borderlines, your narcissists, your cutters, your drug addicts—you’ve got them all, but you’ve got them in a more concentrated dose.” By declaring that none of these nuts are going to have control over you, that none of them can really get to you, burrowing under your skin like an insect and laying eggs in your mind, then you’ll be ok in the end. You’ll be the adult in a crowd of stupid children.
Because of that, for all it’s darkness, Stupid Children left me hopeful. It’s a truly wonderful coming-of-age story. Just with a lot of blood.