I don't think I've ever encountered a book as dreamlike as Blue on Blue. And not in the same sense as the surreal stories I read or anything like that, no, when I say Blue on Blue is "dreamlike," I mean in the sense that it honestly feels like a dream. There's a sense of more commonplace surreality and bright, pastel poetics that Quentin Crisp brings to his novel, that dreamlike sense that everything is absolutely strange, but that everything is exactly where it's supposed to be. Of course there are gigantic sapient brine shrimp running an attraction called the Sea Monkey Kingdom. Of course the Buena Vista (which I assumed looked like Sleeping Beauty's Castle from the Magic Kingdom) is a lucid dream palace. And of course all of these things are kind of In Blue on Blue, Quentin Crisp creates an intriguing world with wonderful sensations and feeling, and I'm definitely going to seek out more of his work.
More, as always, below.
"Doesn't everyone have a dream?"
- Victor Winton
Blue on Blue is the story of Victor Winton, a comic-book artist and animator living in an alternate-dimension time loop called the Alternative States of the American Fifties, or ASAF for short. Saying the ASAF is an odd place is an understatement-- there's an entire aquarium/amusement park devoted entirely to human-size Sea Monkeys, people soar through the air on flying kites and pogo sticks, X-Ray Specs are real and put into regular circulation by perverts, an architect built an enchanted castle that actually seems to be a lucid dream, and everything is tinged with an air of magical unrealism. So it seems something like fate when Victor finds a young red-haired woman on one of his frequent trips to the local museum when starved for inspiration, and sketches her as Lara Lovelily. He and the woman, Jenny Mills, strike up a conversation and, while she seems reluctant at first, she agrees to go with him to the Sea Monkey Kingdom. Their experience there seems magical, and Victor's inspiration knows no bounds.
Unfortunately, Jenny doesn't see things the same way. She withdraws from Victor's obsessive infatuation with her (and with Lara Lovelily, the comic book character based on her), and Victor retreats further into his worship of the idealized Lara.
And were this any other story, it would end there. But the ASAF doesn't play by reality's rules, and Victor's fascinations begin to take on new, bizarre forms, forms that may transcend the boundaries of existence itself. As Victor's obsession, tied to his love of the color blue, draws him in further and further, it becomes clear that he may have opened a door to something bigger than he might realize.
I have to admit, the thing I'm drawn to the most with Blue on Blue is the concept of Victor's fascination. Victor seems to immediately put Jenny on this kind of pedestal, making her a sort of imperfect avatar for Lara Lovelily, even though Lara is technically his creation and Jenny is...most likely not (we'll get to this in a moment). He seems to try and erase or invalidate the ways that Jenny is normal or ordinary-- her eyes are greener than he'd like, she claims she's "ordinary" and doesn't have any dreams or ambitions-- and kind of elevates her. It actually makes him come off as creepy and obsessive, which works, since he's basically turning an ordinary woman into a supersexed pin-up goddess via his medium. And...I can actually relate. I've felt this way before. I've done this before, though my medium was poetry instead of pictures. I'm pretty sure everyone who's ever been withdrawn has done this before.
But Blue on Blue kind of goes beyond that. Without giving too much away, Victor doesn't see this rejection as Jenny's fault but his own, and turns his gaze and obsession inward, and the results are...unexpected. Nothing exactly blindsiding, especially in a book with a dreamlike atmosphere and constant proof that maybe reality is more of a concept than an actual thing within the bounds of the ASAF, but unexpected and kind of cool all the same. It's an interesting way of addressing the concept, and actually the way it turns from creepy, obsessive worship to a kind of self-discovery and transcendence is one I like.
And, having mentioned those malleable rules of reality, I have to say, I love the setting and presentation Blue on Blue does with the ASAF. Anchored by Victor's fixation with the color blue, the setting is presented as one part pulp sci-fi paradise and one part pastel painting with enough tones of Lynch (fitting, given the dreamlike, nostalgic view of Fifties Americana) to keep the whole thing slightly out of reality. Through Victor's (unreliable) narration, the city of wonders in which he lives is a place of drive-in planetariums, "Magical Daoism," and all of it seems incredibly beautiful. Even when he's describing things that aren't as beautiful, they seem to have an artist's eye for beauty.
Victor's voice helps with that a lot. It's easy to get lost in his polysyllabic poetry, which makes something as simple as him going about his day spiral into passages of synaesthetic wonder. It's not so much a book that's read as it is experienced, since many of the passages deal with sensation and feeling as much as they deal with events or descriptions. Blue on Blue is a book that allows me to get lost in its language, though never to the point of passive reading. Crisp lets his readers wander around in the novel's brightly colored wonderland to their heart's content, and while the book has a definite plot, it's the impressionistic descriptions that move the book forward to its climax.
And along those lines, I like the way the dreamlike events of the plot tend to hide their significance on the first reading through. And that not everything presented as significant is actually a portent. It wasn't until I went back and reread sections of Blue on Blue that I realized exactly which events were set up, and that events-- whether filtered through Victor or not-- came back into play in a larger way. I admit, it might have been the way I read the book that did this, but in either case, I thought it worked fairly well that things happened in a way that called forward and backward.
However, I have to warn readers that most of Blue on Blue's success relies on how much they like or dislike Victor. In the early parts, he came off to me as kind of creepy and detached, but as I identified with him more (and I've made similar mistakes to ones he's made, and seen people make them), I got more into it. How much you like or dislike Victor will also skew you on the ending, which goes in a certain direction, and, if you don't like Victor, will probably annoy you a little.
But honestly? If you can let Crisp's language carry you along and get lost in the swirls and eddies of the book's bright poetry, this book is well worth it. It's a gorgeous novel with some very weird twists and turns and a setting that stuck with me. While Crisp's elements might be reminiscent of other people, they feel like they're completely their own thing. If nothing else, I'm still going over it in my head, turning every facet over and over as I try to digest Victor's effect on his world, and the world's effect on Victor. It's a book that deserves to be found and read, and I hope more people will.