It shouldn’t surprise you that I am a rather finicky reader given how much fiction I get a chance to sample. I have been known to read the beginnings of a half dozen novels without finding one that is of sufficient interest to keep me reading to the very end. Hell, I’ve read a hundred pages of a forthcoming novel and said ‘Enough!’ more than a few times. So heed me when I say that The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is even better as a work of horror tinged mythic fiction than Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and is equally as good as much of the work done by such writers as Stephen King and Roger Zelazny. Yes, it’s that good. And it was so good that it was a novel I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy reading within pages of starting it.
What was it that got me first? Quirky but realistic characters? Relationships between those characters which felt believable? Magical realism that was uniquely envisioned? A superbly crafted plot which many a more seasoned novelist would be proud of? Well, yes and no. I wasn’t this taken with a work of fiction since I saw the first saw the Charmed television series on DVD. (As much as I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sunnydale never felt like a real place to me. Charmed is set in San Francisco and feels like that city.) What made it readable for me was definitely the Genius Loci cafe — a setting so amazingly realized that it’s almost enough to make me move to Santa Cruz! (The Genius Loci, like the Caffe Pergolesi it’s sort of based on, serves Guinness!)
I quickly emailed Tim and asked him, ‘The cafe, Genius Loci, is based on a real cafe, Caffe Pergolesi. How did you take a real space and transform in into a fictional space? Why a cafe as the central setting for Rangergirl?’
His answer was illuminating:
I’m a fan of cafes. As far as public spaces go, it’s hard to beat a place where you can get good drinks, a little food, and lots of conversation. You can sit quietly and read, or write, or hang out and talk to people, and nobody cares if you linger for hours. Genius Loci is based very loosely on Pergolesi — Pergolesi has a similar vibe, as a welcoming place for hipsters, students, bikers, punks, whatever, with a big sprawling deck, beer on tap, etc. It lacks the murals (though there’s usually work hanging by local artists), and the sense of supernatural intrusions.
As for why I chose it as the main setting . . . well, I spent a lot of time at Pergolesi when I lived in Santa Cruz. I lived right around the corner from the place, about a minute’s walk. It’s where my friends hung out. It’s where I wrote most of the first draft. Rangergirl is a love song to Santa Cruz, and part of what I love about Santa Cruz is the walkability of the downtown area, and the cafes, so it seemed a natural setting.
In a back cover blurb, Jeffrey Ford called Rangergirl a metafiction. So I asked Tim, ‘Is that what you think it is? A metafiction to me is akin to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, William Goldman’s A Princess Bride, or Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. Do you see this novel as fitting within that genre?’
Well, insofar as a metafiction is a fiction that self-consciously addresses the uses and nature of fiction, hells yeah it’s a metafiction. It’s all about the way we create worlds with our art, shape the world based on our perceptions, etc. And it’s largely about my heroine addressing the consequences of the fictional world she’s imagined. It’s not a metafiction in the sense that I, as the author, intrude into the text, but in those other senses, I think it definitely is. (That said, I’d never really thought of it as a metafiction until Jeff said that, but I agreed with him instantly when I heard it.)
I’m not sure ‘metafiction’ can properly be referred to as a genre; more as a tool for approaching a story. But the whole issue of ‘genres’ is a thorny one.
Be his answer as it may, it still feels like a metafiction to me, and one that is every bit as good as Fforde’s Thursday Next series was.
Rangergirl takes place in two realities at the same time: present-day Santa Cruz and in what Marzi, our cartoonist, thinks is her imagined alternate version of California in the days of the Old West. (You can read one of Marzi’s, err, Tim Pratt’s tales, Bluebeard and the White Buffalo: A Rangergirl Yarn here. Go ahead and read it. I’ll just have a Guinness while I wait.) Now that you have the flavor of Rangergirl’s reality, imagine that the present-day Santa Cruz is infused with magic. Really. Truly. And keep in mind that Marzipan ‘Marzi’ McCarthy is the night manager at Genius Loci, the place where famous artist Garamond Ray painted seven murals in seven different rooms before vanishing without a trace. Marzi thinks of her work at the coffeehouse simply as the job that pays her bills, while her passion is writing the ongoing Rangergirl graphic narrative about a heroine fighting the very personification of Evil in the Old West. Somehow, though, she’s really seeing another reality which exists alongside her more mundane reality, as demonstrated in an early scene in the novel which shows her seeing this reality while sitting in the Genius Loci, a scene that reminded me of the ‘Dead Man Dating’ episode of Charmed in which the sisters could see a ghost but no one else could.
There are wonderful touches here, including a dead woman resurrected as a sort of an elemental who looks like the ultimate mud woman, complete with Rastafarian style dreadlocks; a visiting independent scholar bent on unlocking the mystery of the painter of the Genius Loci murals; a woman friend of Marzi’s who’s quite possibly the sexiest being in existence but doesn’t know she is; an acolyte of what he thinks is the Earthquake god; the owner of Genius Loci, who looks to be a loner lost in a video obsession; and the missing muralist himself, who may hold the answer to why there’s something imprisoned within the Cafe itself.
In the reality of Rangergirl, there exists The Outlaw, a personification of all that’s evil in that reality. Rangergirl defeats him in her reality, but what if he were to escape into this reality, as he has now done with unintentional aid of Marzi? Can Marzi defeat whatever The Outlaw is? Will Marzi accept that all this is really happening and she’s not crazy? Will she have the help of her friends in doing so? Or will all of this reality fall to a primal force that seeks only to cause chaos to be? I’m not saying, as saying anything else would spoil your fun! And considerable fun there is to be had.
The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is easily the most impressive debut novel I’ve read in a very long time! It is also one of the best novels I’ve ever read, period. I’ve included it on my list of Best Reads of 2005. Now Tim, get out there and write your next novel — I want to see what amazing piece of fiction you do next!
(Bantam Spectra, 2005)