Black Cloud by Juliet Escoria is a book about drugs that is not a Drug Book. Although each first-person story cycles through a litany of mind-altering substances—coke, meth, weed, ketamine, cutting, and antidepressants, to name a few—the deeper stories take place in between lines, hits, and swigs.
The main characters—who in many ways feels like the main character, since each narrative is so similar in tone—flit against this chemical backdrop, battered but unyielding. By taking Kava, the narrator of “I Do Not Question It” feels “like the burden of being troubled, of being human, has been lifted.” It is this burden that connects each story, infusing the book with tension as the characters struggle to get out from under it.
With the exceptions of a piece about growing up with an addict mother and a piece that chronicles a journey to sobriety with a platonic friend (jealous of her success, he threatens to send her heroin in the mail), the relationships in this collection focus mostly on the romantic and the would-be romantic. In a high-end club in lower Manhattan, a young coat-check girl becomes involved with a predatory manager. A girl in a 12-step program is picked up by a man fifteen years sober. A drug-addled lover takes his girlfriend to get an abortion, but it turns out she’s already miscarried.
These relationships are disappointing but unsurprising. “Like with most good men, the sex was unremarkable,” the narrator says. Nestled inside a narrative of poppers and overdoses, Escoria examines the agency of young women in modern times. They succeed at school, at work, and in rehab; they score and self-medicate without fail. But in a way that may remind readers of Mary Gaitskill, their lives are frequently circumscribed by the men that they love. “It was always him kissing me, and me just being there,” says the narrator in “Reduction.”
The book is short, with each story printed under both a title and an emotion: Resentment, Confusion, Apathy, Guilt, Disgust, Spite, Revenge, Fear, Powerlessness, Self-Loathing, Envy, and Shame. The fact that there are twelve of these “steps” cannot be a coincidence, but the tone of the pieces spirals down and not up. Near the end of the last one, the narrator can’t “stop doing coke all the time” and although she admits she’s on the path to sobriety, the book ends in darkness, not in light. This realism imbues the work with gravity and power.
But the book is not the end. On a Vimeo channel of the same name, Escoria has posted ten companion videos to be watched alongside the fiction. After she’d finished reading from the collection at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Brooklyn, I approached her to ask how she envisioned them integrating into the reader’s experience. Escoria she said she hoped readers would watch each one twice, before and after reading the corresponding short stories. “But maybe that’s too much to ask,” she admitted.
It’s an interesting medium: some of the videos incorporate text from the stories, some are more like the director’s cut scenes from a finished movie, some provide a counterbalance to the stories they represent with journalistic snippets. My favorite, Heroin Stories, complements its fiction counterpart perfectly. In the prose version (“Heroin Story”), the main character talks about a couple she knew who got addicted, got clean, and got back into it after many years. It’s the most removed she is as a narrator, almost Nick Carraway-like, but the compassion she shows for this couple is immediate and tender. As she chronicles their downfall, it’s clear that she sees herself in their story. In the video counterpart, an offscreen cameraperson asks a dozen people about their own experience with heroin. Like in the prose piece, the narrator doesn’t focus on her own story, but it comes out plain enough, heartbreaking and true.