Malcolm Orange Disappears

Jan Carson's debut novel is a magical realist adventure that fizzes with life

Jan Carson’s first novel fizzes with life and detail and the taste of another world. It tells the story of a little boy, Malcolm Orange, who finds that he is disappearing just after his wayward father deserts his small family and leaves them to fend for themselves in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Life with Mr Orange has hardly been stable either – a picaresque journey across American selling tires and losing an assortment of grandparents along the way.

The family come to rest in Portland, Oregon and a home in a Baptist Retirement Village, where Mrs Orange is given a job ‘wiping butts’, changing monstrous diapers, administering habit-forming drugs and feeding people puréed turkey dinners in the medical centre where the old people go when they’re ‘done with not being dead’.

With the job comes an empty chalet for herself, Malcolm and baby Ross, who lives in drawers and a sports bag. When not butt-wiping, Mrs Orange watches Mexican television soap operas in order to learn Spanish and kisses inanimate objects in the chalet – doors, sheets and shoes – anything but her two wee boys.

This is because she ‘remained chronically unable to visit actual physical affection upon her two sons, choosing instead to bless them by proxy, as if attempting to leave a thin sheen of love on every surface they might possibly touch'. This passage gives a flavour of the writing in the book – witty, alive, heartbreaking by turns.

The storyline involves the child attempting to solve the problem of his apparent dissolution through the unlikely friendship of the residents of the home who are themselves, by definition, also disappearing, and with the help of the disturbed and neglected daughter of the home’s director, Soren James Blue, or Sorry for short.

The novel is catergorised as ‘magical realist’ but don’t let that put you off if, like me, you find that genre rather dated.

Malcolm Orange Disappears is more subtle than straightforward magical realism, and reminds me of what Philip Roth said of American fiction in the 1960s: that fiction could no longer do justice to the strangeness of contemporary America, which had outstepped fiction in its fictionality.

That is the world of this novel, where ordinary life is zany and strange and where the most outrageous things – like the little boy’s sense that his body is developing transparent holes – is undercut by a psychological truth that links his sense of this to his abandoned state – actually by his errant father and emotionally by his damaged mother.

The narrative voice – closely linked to the child’s viewpoint – is there at times, though it offers the more realist sense of what is going on, for example when Soren Blue conducts a scientific examination of Malcolm’s body, offering to map each of the holes in Magic Marker only to end up marking only one – the natural mark of his belly button.

At times the narrative moves outside of the retirement home to tell the back stories of its residents, and it is in some of these vignettes that the most poetic and powerful writing of the book occurs. One such story concerns the blind Cunningham Holt – who ‘was just getting used to his eyes then they up and left him’ as a result of a 4th of July accident with a firework.

His family’s first reaction is to turn to the charismatics and pray for a miracle, but when all kinds of religious interventions fail Holt has two marbles inserted into the spaces where his eyes were and so begins a life of blindness and the most awful tragedy.

Holt, described as ‘odd as Christmas and kind as Christ himself’, washes up in the retirement home after 52 sad years buried in New York and comes to life again in the Baptist Retirement Village in Portland Oregon and a friend to Malcolm Orange.

Another such excursion into a wider story is that of Junior Button, one of the residents who Malcolm’s mother feeds and who finally reveals her own past as part of a lineage of flying children – a secret tribe that stretched back in American history to the end of slavery, the Civil War and through the two world wars.

This is some of the book’s finest writing – the description of the flying children recruited into America’s Airforce flying over Dachau, Buchenwald and Aushwitz, seeing things that would never be ‘flown away from’ and returning to American ‘like wilted sycamore seeds, too limp-winged and exhausted to soar’.

The book moves to its conclusion with a kind of cumulative force that reminds me of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney, with all of the narrative threads coming to a climax and a kind of happy ending.

I felt at times, however, that this kind of story, in which there is a central symbolic metaphor, is more suited to a shorter narrative – stories like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or Moy McCrory’s tales of women who disappear as their husbands stop seeing them, or couch potatoes who actually start to sprout.

Perhaps Malcolm Orange Disappears could have been pared back a little, yet it is still an astonishing debut that presents a rich, intense, fully-realised world from a truly original new voice on the Northern Irish writing landscape.

I wait in eager anticipation for Carson’s second novel, Roundabouts, which she told Culture NI would involve 'the Causeway Safari Park, Bob Dylan’s early life, driving lessons, caravans and a reluctant ghost’. I can’t wait.

Malcolm Orange Disappears is out now, published by Liberties Press.