Feeling kind of blue

Kathryn Born’s The Blue Kind centers on Alison, who as a teenager survives being burned at the stake and, in an act of vengeance, incinerates her village. Half a millennium later she returns to Neom, the metropolis that’s built up on top of her birthplace.

In Neom Alison gets involved in a complex system of drug trade, in which pushers finance new transactions with future payoffs. In this debt economy, girlfriends customarily serve as collateral—they are, in junkie lingo, “chained” to the men whose deals they guarantee. Dealers and their girlfriends are organized hierarchically according to a rainbow scheme. “Purples,” at the top, manage the prettiest syndicates of women—the largest are lush harems, the smallest resemble nuclear families. Down to the lowest rank, red, everyone indulges daily in a toxic stash. Alison, her childish husband, Cory, and their freeloader amnesiac friend Ray are the blue kind of fiends.

The members of this trio, it turns out, are also deathless. Not everyone is. But these three pals can live forever because for centuries in Neom—since long before it became a dope capital—physical laws have been coming undone. Nobody knows why.

The immortality premise gives Born a way to comment on the basis of addiction. Alison could leave, escape this crack-up in physics, but she remains in Neom, where she continues to witness the breakdown of both nature and morals. Her decision to hang on doesn’t take the form of a question. In this world, she tells herself, she is a victim. Anyway, she thinks, it’s only natural that she spend most of her immortal lifetime numb to time.

Here the link between immortality and addiction—states that share similar rationalizations—emerges. At first the drugs make you feel immortal. Next you sense that you can go on this way forever: sustained abuse leads to false assurances of reward waiting in the next high, and licenses the application of more drugs. A relentless momentum toward overdose—or, in this case, the far end of eternity—mounts. Nothing short of headlong reentry into mortal life can stall Allison’s spiral.

In this novel Born finds an allegory for addiction in immortality. When Alison finds an imperishable infant in the rubble of her village, popping flaming embers into his mouth, screaming with laughter and searching around for more sparks—what is that if not the primal scene of addiction?

The bankrupt flabbiness of perpetual youth also ordains The Blue Kind‘s prose quality: Alison’s narration is fixedly dull. One would have hoped that after 500 years, she’d have figured how to render an adequate simile. The language may be a washout poetically, but it fails by a formula: remove the word like from every simile in the novel and you’ll create a manuscript indistinguishable from the original. If it’s known that Atom is a storied psychopath and pharmaceutical innovator, for instance, it’s inconsequential to argue for “Atom was like a mad scientist” over “Atom was a mad scientist.” The likenesses defeat themselves; they are too literally accurate.

I could level blame for this weakness, gripe about authorial incompetence, but I’ll bet the slack prose is deliberate, better to represent the book’s strung-out narrator. Alison dodges her inner angel like you or I would dodge the devil. Like the devil, poetry is in the details, which Alison defies because time passes too torturously when they’re brought into focus. Her language reflects this resistance.

Additionally, repackaging the actual as metaphorical offers a chance to escape from ordinary strife into a mythical dreamland. The story of Alison’s genesis, as she tells it, duplicates the illusions of grandeur and excess that junkies concoct to excuse themselves from quitting. Autobiography is applied liberally, a balm to soothe the barbs of self-deception. Our view into Alison’s world is fogged by the haze of her backstory. Despite my hunch that Alison’s whole chronicle is a metatextual drug dream, I hesitate: Am I duping myself, extending too much credit to a novel that’s simply surrendered its core to incoherence? Perhaps that is The Blue Kind‘s principal mystery.