Genre mash-ups are de rigueur these days. Of course, writers like Margaret Atwood have been tight-roping the misty border between literary fiction and speculative fiction, fantasy and mystery for years. But a new outcropping of younger upstarts, such as Michael Chabon, Charles Yu and Jonathan Letham, have been contorting the lines in new and unexpected directions. Genre fiction, it would seem, is no longer relegated to the back of the bookstore or the dominion of the geek. Examining the borderlands between what is traditionally deemed "literary" and what is "genre," inverting, twisting, defying and fusing traditional genre tropes with meta-modernist craft, is all part of this new genre renaissance.
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There is a precedent for the renewed interest in genre as literature. Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Tennessee Williams, Jorge Luis Borges, Ray Bradbury and a good many others all wrote what could be deemed literary genre fiction. Summed up, these writers welded tales of the future, tales of the fantastic, tales of the macabre with stories that, ultimately, looked at what it means to be human. But it is the pushing of the form, the muddying of the borders — and the sheer originality of story, point-of-view and structure — that make the new lit-genre rebirth something fresh and rather exciting to behold.
And now author Preston L. Allen joins the party. In "Every Boy Should Have a Man," Allen takes genre bending into unexplored territory. Allen, the author of the 2010 African-American sendup of sexuality and religion "Jesus Boy," has crafted a highly imaginative, unsettling work of social satire that melds multiple genres while ruminating on a host of contemporary ills.
A fearless amalgam of biblical language and allegory, fantasy and fable, "Every Boy Should Have a Man" is set in a world ruled by humanoid oafs — oversized humans who keep surviving humans ("Mans," as they are called) as pets. In "Every Boy," Allen utilizes a speculative fable as a way to muse on race, slavery, civil rights and even climate change.
Allen's post-apocalyptic world is ravaged by war, environmental destruction and vast economic disparity. The rich have gotten richer, the poor are down and out. More troubling: Cannibalism is rampant in Allen's fabulist tale. "Pets" are often stolen and eaten in this desperate world of poverty and hunger.
The novel tells the story of a poor boy and the three "mans" he owns as child. The boy finds his first man wandering in the bramble and brings him home, much like a child in our own world would shelter a stray dog or cat. The boy's parents are not happy with the new houseguest. The boy is accused of stealing this man, whom he names "Brown Skin" for his dark complexion. The man is handsome and — rare for a man — has the ability to speak. The boy's heart is broken when he is forced to give his "man" away. But the oaf boys' father loves his son and, recognizing his child's broken heart, brings home a female "man," wrapped in a red ribbon with the attached note:
"Every Boy Should Have a Man. You're a Fine Son. Love Dad."
The female man is fair, with red hair and freckles up and down her arms. The boy names her "Red Sleeves." The boy's second "man" vanishes, too, but not before she is impregnated and gives birth to his third and final man, the baby he names "Redlocks," for the red hair she inherited from her mother.
Redlocks is fiery, scrappy, a survivor with an attitude. The novel focuses on the story of Redlocks — a fairy tale archetype down to her very name (a play on "Goldilocks"). But Redlocks' story is flipped upside down by the world she lives in. The novel tracks her trials, travails and quest for survival in this dark and somber vision of a future run over by everything from war to strip mining to cannibalism.
"Every Boy Should Have a Man" is James Baldwin meets Aldous Huxley, a twisted contortion of a weird fairy tale future gone wrong, all told from high atop the mountain in a sort of New Testament prose. As the mixologist of this mad and unpredictable genre tableau, Allen has navigated into wholly uncharted territory. He comments on everything from slave ownership to pet ownership to the way we treat our planet and ourselves. His novel is ambitious yet understated, cautionary while rarely politically preachy. "Every Boy Should Have a Man" is that rare novel that is derived from such a disparate scope of literary influences that it waxes entirely original.
Sam Weller is the award-winning author of three books about Ray Bradbury and an associate professor in the creative writing department at Columbia College Chicago.