Anemone and Skins

Rita Indiana – Tentacle (Achy Obejas, translator, & Other Stories, 2019)

A post-apocalyptic Caribbean island. A sacred anemone is stolen from the dictator’s personal obeah and traded for Rainbow Brite; a drug that can change a man to a woman, or a woman to a man.

As far as premises go, Tentacle had me hooked from the start. Then, just like its namesake, it sucked me in and entangled me. It was a book that I couldn’t put down and, more than that, the book wouldn’t put me down either.

Rita Indiana has an amazing ability to switch up tone and direction without it breaking the narrative flow or writing style. We move between the minds of a trans sex worker, a lazy artist and an eighteenth-century skin trader with seamless fluidity. The translator, Achy Obejas, must take some credit for this too. The book is a masterpiece in streetfighting style.

As far as narratives go, Tentacle is refreshingly plot-driven. Despite being primarily literary in her approach to writing, Indiana has smuggled in the dark arts of structure and pacing with her sci-fi genre borrowings. We move from section to section just at the right moment; entering during the action and leaving just before a resolution is offered. Serious momentum is developed as a result.

So, what is the story? Well, the primary narrative concerns the aforementioned transman Acilde who is introduced to Esther, the President’s obeah, by a john. This client is a Cuban doctor who can get access to the transitioning drug Rainbow Brite and so, after some underworld scheming, they concoct a plan to steal the obeah’s rare, sacred, and, most importantly, highly valuable anemone.

The sacredness and rarity of the anemone is due to an environmental catastrophe that, despite being essential to the book’s setting, is nevertheless dealt with lightly. The Caribbean Sea (and perhaps all seas, we are told) have been turned black. A bioweapon was unleashed that destroyed all marine life and the world lingers on in the aftermath.

The smartest part of Tentacle, for me, is its depiction of a “post-apocalyptic” life not too dissimilar from our own. Everything continues, only slightly worse, and refugees from the devastated zones (in this case Haiti) are efficiently disposed of, posing only a minor inconvenience.

There is something more chilling, more real, in this blasé attitude to disaster than anything offered by The Road, for example (another book with black seas).

The disaster explains the anemone’s rarity. Yet to understand its sacredness, Indiana introduces us to a historical narrative. Roque, the cook and captain of a small band of skinners, lands on the island with his men, Argenis and Engombe, accompanying him. They slaughter and skin cattle beside a sacred cave.

In the cave are said to be the “big headed” men and women of the ancient times. To access it, one must dive through a narrow underwater passageway lined with anemones. To do so changes a man.

It is here that we are introduced to the final portrait of our narrative triptych; the artist, Argenis. Also present at the skinning, Argenis has a loose relationship with time, and it is his aimless meandering through the past and the future, call-centres and the fine art world, that provide the connections between Indiana’s overlapping narrative arcs.

Argenis’ journey through art holds the key to understanding Tentacle’s concealed thematic depths. Trained as a promising renaissance painter by a group of Catholic priests, he arrives at art school to discover abstraction, modernism, and postmodernism all at once. This leads to a breakdown at first, a total lack of confidence, before eventually offering a rebirth.

Argenis’ neoclassicism is much in demand from wealthy commissioners, and praised by the fashionable for its kitsch. Argenis is a success, but the terms of his success alienate him from his paintings, his work, and ultimately his own life; preferring weed and porn to his wife and family.

Tentacle is, to my mind, a book that is as much about art as it is about disaster. Indiana might have taken all the best bits from sci-fi to construct her narrative, but its speculative aspects serve a symbolic rather than a predictive function.

Like Argenis’ ironic detachment from his own classical talent, the sacred magic of the anemones is made hollow by the sea’s death, and Acilde’s life too is made hollow by getting what he wants: having achieved a male body, he has no more to pursue. The apocalypse of Tentacle is twenty-first century meaninglessness, and each character meets it, is crushed by it, and becomes post-apocalyptic as a result.

Tentacle is a novel of great depth that also happens to be a great read. These don’t come along very often and I highly recommend checking it out. This is the novel that Olivia Laing’s Crudo was trying to be. If it isn’t granted the same kudos as that unfortunate book then we can be sure that our literary class is corrupt, and we should push them all together, en masse, into the black sea.

– Joe Darlington