The powers that be at Mukti – those faceless organizers of regeneration – have designed the spa so that Newbies don’t run into Crusties much. We eat separately, sleep in segregated clusters of cottages, enjoy our dips in the mud baths and mineral pools, our yoga workshops and leech therapy sessions, at different times. As Gobind Singh, our orientation guru, pointed out, “the face of rebirth is the mask of death.”
I read Julia Elliot’s “LIMBs” last year in Tin House. It wasn’t one of my favorites; I felt the science was too prominent, distracting from the very human story, and the coincidence factor was too high. I was still glad to read more of her work since I generally enjoy a little science in my fiction, and, happily, I thought this story worked much better. It’s available online from Conjunctions.
It’s structurally similar to “LIMBs” in that it involves three people involved in a quasi-romantic situation and takes place in a quasi-medical setting. It also reminds me a bit of Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano” which I encountered in Tin House and BASS 2012. But be forewarned: it’s not for the squeamish. I have a high tolerance for medical reality, but if you’re bothered by words like “pustules” and “suppurating” and “sloughed” you might find it a difficult read.
The story follows Red, Lissa, and the unnamed first-person narrator as they undergo the regeneration process at the Mukti spa. It’s a blend of physical exfoliation and kharmic realignment, complete with all the suffering you could ask for, a necessary element for the seriously questing: anyone can get a facelift complete with anesthesia and a week of mild discomfort, but only the truly devoted go through weeks of The Hell Realm:
According to the orientation materials distributed by Guru Gobind Singh, the Hell Realm is different for everyone, depending on how much hatred and bitterness you have stored in your system. All that negativity, stashed deep in your organic tissues, will come bubbling to the surface of your human form. The psychosomatic filth of a lifetime will hatch, breaking through your skin like a thousand miniscule volcanoes to spit its lava.
“Time for my mineral mud bath,” says Red. And now I see what I could not see before: a row of incipient cold sores edging his upper lip, wens forming around the delicate arch of his left nostril, a cluster of protoblisters highlighting each cheekbone like subtle swipes of blusher.
These paragraphs illustrate two of the reasons the story works so well: the gradual escalation of both the details of the process and the tension of the plot, and unlikely juxtapositions. We get some idea, both general and specific, of what’s to come in the first two pages, with words and phrases like “Six Paths of Suffering,” “Crusties,” and the title itself. But the reveal of the process to the reader is carefully orchestrated to coincide for the most part with the narrator’s experience.
Several varieties of juxtaposition show up. First, there’s the whole idea of luxury and extremely expensive voluntary pain: a spa full of people eat fugu sashimi with pickled dandelion greens and orchid dondurma (a Turkish ice cream), get wraps, baths, massages, and yoga sessions to “rewire” the soul while they’re infected with a half-dozen genetically-tailored pathogens designed to regenerate the body by first breaking it down. Then there’s the deeper sense of the absurdity of these people paying enormous sums to accomplish this suffering for the sake of looking younger, bracketed throughout by the “wisdom” offered by their orientation guide, Guru Gobind Singh:
According to the pamphlet, Gobind Singh has been through the Suffering twice, without the luxury of gourmet meals, around-the-clock therapies, or hands-on guidance from spiritual professionals.… When he walks, he hovers three millimeters off the ground – you have to look carefully to detect his levitational power, but yes, you can see it: The bastard floats.
This duality pervades the entire piece, balancing the drama with humor. Luxury and pain: the guru is on to something, this connection, because the more we suffer for something, the more valuable we perceive it to be. He’s figured out how to bottle and sell it, at the Mukti spa.
And then come the pirates.
Red and I are on the Lotus Veranda eating zucchini pavé with miso sauce, waiting for poached veal. The waitress slinks over, apologizes, tells us that the dish will be served without capers. Red and I exchange dark looks. We imagine jars of capers from Italy stacked in the belly of a cargo ship, the freighter afloat in some secret pirate cove. And deeper in the bowels of the boat, in a refrigerated vault, shelves full of biomedical supplies – time-sensitive blood products and cell cultures in high-tech packaging.
All around us, scabby patients whisper about the pirates, reaching a collective pitch that sounds like an insect swarm. Bunched in conspiratorial clusters, they flirt with scary possibilities: spoiled meds, botched stage-five healing, full-body keloid scarring…
These paragraphs show the finesse of the story. Again, there’s the progression, and the juxtaposition, the twin techniques that make this a superb story with the suspense of a page-turner, the dramatized satire worthy of Jonathan Swift.
The ending of the story is another of those “Lady or the Tiger” endings, and I know that’s going to annoy some readers. It’s not as amorphous as “the New Yorker ending” I’m beginning to recognize; it’s very precise, in fact, and the outcome will be one of two extremes. A feature at The State by Otis R. Taylor, Jr., quotes Elliot on this ending: “Stories have limitations. I think if they end on an ambiguous notes, often the writer doesn’t know.” I’m ok with the ambiguity in this case, because I thought foreknowledge of the possibility that the procedure might turn out badly was more important than the actual results. But I’m not sure I like the comment.
Is the omission of the outcome important? I don’t think so; the story isn’t really about the narrator’s outcome. For me, it’s more about recognizing our own tendency to sometimes indulge our obsessions in comical, even potentially dangerous, ways. But they’re only comical, and the risks only seem excessive, when viewed from outside.