The Strange Stranger
By Cheryl Morgan
Elsewhere in this issue, Gary K. Wolfe talks about how some authors play with the structure of their novels, creating stories within stories and worlds within worlds. An excellent example of this sort of thing is Tim Prattís debut novel. It is appropriately entitled The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, for strange this story most certainly is.
By night, Marzi McCarty is the mild-mannered deputy manager of a coffee shop in Santa Cruz, a charming little seaside town just down the coast from San Francisco. The place is a hang out for hippies, art students, and of course my good friend Rick Kleffel. It is a lovely town, and just the sort of place that might have a cool coffee shop whose walls are decorated with murals by a famous painter.
By day, however, Marzi (thatís short for Marzipan, by the way) is the artist and scriptwriter of The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, a genre-and-gender-bending comic that mixes Western and Fantasy themes and has a girl gunslinger in the title role. Rangergirlís archenemy, The Outlaw, is more of an evil sorcerer than a bank robber, though he does always appear as a dark and menacing stranger.
Now, Santa Cruz being Santa Cruz, coffee shops are not immune from weirdoes. Prattís book soon takes on elements of a Tim Powers novel as we meet those traditional Californian folks who spend far too much time talking to themselves about their eccentric religious and political ideas. Beej, one of Marziís regular customers, has started sleeping rough and claims he has become an acolyte of the earthquake god. Then Jane, another art student, comes in covered in mud, claiming to have been chosen by the earth goddess. Even for Santa Cruz, this is a little out of the ordinary.
And so it proves, for both of them are actually in the thrall of an elemental spirit native to California, one who expresses himself through earthquakes, mudslides and wildfires.
"This is amazing," Beej said. He looked at Denis and smiled, tentatively ó Beej always looked like a dog that was hoping for a pat on the head but expecting a kick. "To be in the company of something so powerful, to be of serviceÖ weíre extraordinarily lucky."
In order to counteract this menace, and save her town from destruction, Marzi has to become Rangergirl, journey into the West Beyond The West, and run the bad guy out of town.
Just why is this so? Because the bad guy, whatever this spirit might be, is malleable in the hands of a strong imagination. Marziís influence makes him behave like The Outlaw, but Janeís belief in an earth goddess is sufficiently strong that she always sees him as female.
So here we have a book about a comic creator whose imagination has helped fashion a menace to the real world and who must become a comic character in order to fight her creation. And who is going to fight him using the power of her art. Got that? I told you it was strange.
But does it work? Prattís problem is that he has to convince his readers that this is all real, which when you are dealing with comics characters can be a little challenging. It is relatively easy, say, for Elizabeth Hand in Mortal Love to write about modern day people being touched by Faerie. You expect that sort of thing to happen in England, and Hand does a splendid job of keeping the whole magical aspect of the book at armís length. Pratt, on the other hand, is asking us to believe that modern day Californian arts students are being touched by a native spirit who dresses like a bad guy from a Clint Eastwood Western, and far from keeping the magic at armís length, he throws it in your face. I can understand why some reviewers have had difficulty with this.
Fortunately Pratt has created some great characters to keep the story moving. In addition to Marzi, Beej and Jane we have Lindsay, Marziís cheerful and flirtatious pal, and Denis, Janeís boyfriend, who is pathologically tidy and terribly prissy about art. This enables Pratt to have the occasional laugh at what he is doing.
The man came into the light completely, and when Denis saw his face, he screamed, something he never would have imagined himself doing ó screaming in shock was so pulp-fiction, so hackneyed and inauthentic.
Interestingly there is one character who didnít work at all for me. That is Jonathan, Marziís love interest. Supposedly heís this cool art student from out East with a shady background from having hung out with drug dealers when he was a kid. But he has very little personality at all, and his main function in the book seems to be to get captured by The Outlaw and rescued by Marzi/Rangergirl. If Pratt has done this deliberately as an ironic comment on the usual role taken by female love interest characters in adventure stories then Iím very impressed. And if he didnít Iím sure heís just suddenly remembered that he did. Or at least thatís what heíll say at Wiscon.
Anyway, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is indeed a very strange book. It would be strange simply because it features a bunch of eccentric Californians, but the playing with the nature of the story that Pratt achieves is sufficient to throw many readers a curve ball, and the level of suspension of disbelief he requires will bamboozle quite a few more. If you can get past all that, or if you simply find the likes of Lindsay and Denis sufficiently interesting to keep reading, then youíll start being impressed at Prattís ambition. For a first novel this is a very brave book indeed.