Lillian Ann Slugocki’s latest novella is a hypnotic odyssey through the worlds of death, desire, and family. In a shimmering and edgy homage to the classic Hero’s Journey, Leda, a smartly dressed woman of a certain age with an impeccable silver-blond bob and an obsessive attention to detail, must fly home to identify the body of a family member. This deceptively simple set-up is the jumping off point for Slugocki’s deep dive into the places where memory merges with myth. It also includes a layer of metafiction in which the narrator reflects on the process of creating a story. The result is a complex, layered tale that transcends the typical narrative arc.
Alongside Leda’s main journey, there are two sub-narratives revealed as flashbacks – Leda travelling with her sister to deliver her into a drug rehab facility, and a death defying drive on an icy highway during an epic blizzard with two completely stoned brothers to see their terminally ill mother. In the unfolding of these stories, Leda offers us the opportunity to consider what or who are our demons, and how they travel with us throughout our lives.
Slugocki requires her readers to pay attention. We can feel this in the bounty of details that insist we stay present in each and every moment of Leda’s story. We do so even as she travels to somewhere she is not entirely sure she wants to go. There are lush evocations of her Brooklyn street during a snowstorm, the nuanced and complicated portrait of growing up with four siblings in Minnesota, a sexy airport encounter with a stranger, the harrowing description of her sister’s journey to rehab in the back of a speeding limo, the crazy race against time with her brothers, and the cold and clinical description of a hospital morgue.
I love the way that Slugocki unwraps the complexity of family: “In grief, her family hides. Scatters to the four winds, like a dandelion.” This line sets up the challenge of finding resolution in this particular group of siblings.
Even in unity, there is a dark undercurrent to their intimacy, starting with their early Minnesota roots. An evocative memory of Leda, her sisters and her brothers regularly assembling under a backyard clothesline tent to tell scary stories ends like this: “When they are all crying, and holding hands, story time is over. Catharsis complete.”
Slugocki never flinches as she offers up raw details of the experiences that make and break lives. In fact, she has made a career of exploring life on the edge in books like The Erotica Project, which she co-wrote with Erin Cressida Wilson, and her 2012 novella, The Blue Hours. The blunt sexuality that runs through her work is often paired with more harrowing elements related to death, creating a deeply satisfying brand of sense and sensual memory. She is not afraid to explore sex and desire on her own terms. This book is no exception.
Because it’s 2013, and nobody calls each other anymore. In the past, she might’ve called a real human voice, attached to a real human body. But that is not the case anymore. Instead, there are multiple felicitations from all her social media platforms. The love of hundreds of people, seemingly, rain down from the sky, but it’s not like when the cock hits the good spot inside you. And everybody who is reading this knows this is true. We all know what that feels like, that ah-hah moment, like, Christ, it’s home. You feel it deep in the heart of you. In the core of your being. But the digital counterpart is an abstract hug. It’s not the visceral cock hitting the G spot. And this is what she needs today. She needs someone—a guide, a friend, a lover, a sister, a brother, someone.
One of Slugocki’s regular themes is the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Words like sanctity and holy make frequent appearances in the text, as in this passage in which Leda speaks to the driver of the car she and her brother have hired to bring their sister in for detox:
I’m going to tell you something Elijah from Tel Aviv. My sister has to shoot up heroin, so she doesn’t detox. That would not be pretty. We’re driving her to a clinic in Montauk. It’s absolutely necessary that she does this. She’s really trying to get better.
I speak to this man as if we, too, are in a holy place— a synagogue, engaged in a private, sacred conversation. Because the life of our sister is at stake, a beautiful woman, the only woman in the world who wears diamonds and sapphires to detox. He knows this, intuitively, like he’s a member of our tribe. In the backseat, Paul and Marianne engage in the private business of needle and spoon. I keep my hand on Elijah’s knee. This man and I, we are now complicit. We are traveling on the same road. Strictly speaking, we are his passengers, but, now, he is also ours.
In How to Travel With Your Demons, Slugocki is able to create a distinct universe. She makes no apologies for any of our heroine’s choices along the way, and does not seek to make them conform to a familiar model. Rather, she skillfully wraps the complexity of her story in a kind of spiral dance that feels almost meditative. By the time we arrive at the unexpected conclusion, we have been spun into a heady combination of disorientation and illumination that is at the heart of this novella.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor and the founder of Project Mavens. She has had creative work published in The Miscreant, Her Kind at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Negative Suck. An experienced blogger, interviewer and essayist, she writes about the arts, audience development and entrepreneurship. Her online portfolio can be found here. She is currently working on a collection of stories and poems about grief, parenting and sexuality, which, she is happy to report, are not mutually exclusive. @projectmaven