Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Review: The Transformations: a Tale of Modern Sin

Your book review will start in a few paragraphs. While you are waiting, please enjoy the following puzzling non sequitur.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church and, although my religious education clearly did not cover in one coat, there are a few things that remain to me from it. One is the definition of a the word sacrament as "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." I am not particularly religious, and not that into the sacraments, but after forty years I still find the words of the definition endlessly useful for analogy. For instance, consider facial piercings which are "outward and visible signs of inward and metaphorical holes in the head."

If you take the definition and negate one word you get "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace." Doesn't that sound strangely familiar? It's odd that you can take the definition of a rather technical bit of Christian doctrine, make a piddlin' change and suddenly discover that it has turned into a pretty good description of the television gossip show that you try not to watch.

Thank you for your patience. The review of The Transformations: a Tale of Modern Sin starts now.

Dex Quire's new novel, The Transformations: a Tale of Modern Sin, takes its name, its format, some plot elements, and its sense of the divine glimpsed in the ridiculous from Lucius Apuleius' picaresque novel, Metamorphoses, more commonly known as The Golden Ass. The Golden Ass is the only Roman era novel to still survive in its entirety and is still, after 18 centuries, a good read. Quire has set himself the task of re-imagining it for modern audiences. As in Apuleius' original, Quire's story concerns itself with the misadventures of a man who accidentally turns himself into a donkey. Apuleius' hero steals an ointment from a witch believing it will turn him into a bird but Quire's hero orders his from the back of a "men's" magazine:

Increase Your Penis Size!
Onan's Enlarging Ointment:
Increase Your Penis Size!
*Apply twice a day

It came wrapped like a pipe bomb, no external markings except for a New Jersey postmark. The morning it arrived I ran to the bathroom rubbed it on and damn if my c**k didn't instantly start to fill out and enlarge, to feed out like a trombone. I was so happy I grinned into the mirror and my smile pulled right off my face. In fact it pulled and pulled back and back until it grew into a snout and my ears widened and shaped into long goofy triangles. At the same time the little bit of hair I had on the back of my head sprouted and ran, coating my entire body. My belly bulged and seemed to grow as big as a cement mixer. I was winded and dropped to the floor. But somehow I was still standing. I was on all fours. All fours? So far off the floor. Hind legs? All fours!


I was still clutching the tube of Onan's and the writing on the back label jumped out at me:

In case of over application—

Damn! My feet and now my hands were bunching into hooves and I dropped the tube into the toilet. What the hell? I looked into the mirror. I shouted and heard myself:


God help me! I had turned into a f***ing donkey!

[Excerpt from Chapter One which is available as a sample on the publisher's web site.]

You may have noticed from the w**ds that I asterisked out for my review that the language gets a bit frisky at times. Neither Apuleius' nor Quire's book is suitable for the prudish, the prim or the overly sensitive. If you can't handle "adult language" or "sexual situations" -- as they say on MPAA rating cards -- you should give both books a pass. One of the main frustrations of Quire's protagonist is finding himself in a near-encyclopedic assortment of sexual situations with scarcely any actual sex. Let me be clear: it's a kinky little book, but one that is well worth reading and, ultimately, oddly inspiring.

After turning himself into a donkey our hero is shuttled all over the hemisphere, befriends a sad alcoholic elephant, grinds flour for a Jesus-freak commune bakery, is teased by an eco-terrorist, finds the world's best food on a tramp freighter, hears a story of a giant bested by an androgynous prince, meets a jungle hero who would have been more like Tarzan except for his mom, invents new strategies for donkey basketball, finds out that a really smart pig makes fairly ordinary bacon, and gradually comes to realize that there are a lot of wonderful things in the world that you will never see if you spend your life contemplating your navel -- and a few nearby anatomical features.

In the Golden Ass there are a number of other magical transformations leading up to our protagonist's but in Quire's book there is only the one literal transformation (or two if you count the change from donkey back to human.) Apuleius has a character turned into a beaver by a witch who felt she had been romantically misused. The choice of a beaver is symbolic since in ancient times the beaver was reputed to bite off his own testicles when pursued so that the hunter would stop for them and the beaver could escape. (The word "castrate" comes from the Greek "castor" meaning beaver.)

In The Transformations there is only one literal, magical "transformation" but a number of other characters do not turn out to be what we expect, or what they initially appear to be. There is a constant interplay between the inner and outer natures of things. Sometimes this interplay is playfully symbolic -- our alcoholic elephant drinks to forget -- and other times it runs deeper -- as with our hero who physically turns himself into a donkey after years spent making a jackass of himself. On the external, literal level our hero needs to learn how to magically turn himself back into a human (which he would have known if he had read his Apuleius) and on the internal, symbolic level he needs to learn about being a man -- his path to self-knowledge having started with one of the sacraments offered in the back pages of a men's magazine.

The transformations is available in Trade Paperback. and Electronic (Kindle) formats. These links, and the image at the top, lead to the Amazon.com product pages. If you follow my link to buy it I get a piece of the action from Amazon. I think it's four percent. If you all buy two copies I could buy a cup of coffee... if I kick in a buck or two.


Calvin Powers said...

why would I read it now that you've spoiled the ending by telling us that he manages to turn himself back into a human :-)

sounds like a fun read though

BigLeeH said...

I don't think I have spoiled anything. There is never any doubt in the book about whether he will finally turn himself back human. That said, there are some suspenseful parts. At one point our hero thinks he has landed himself a key supporting role in one of those dubiously-legal South American films whose titles pop up in one's spam box from time to time -- Juanita and Her Donkey, and things like that. There is considerable suspense in waiting to find out how that bit works out. And for that, you will have to read the book.

Calvin Powers said...

hey, I was just kidding!