Spilling Clarence

by Anne Ursu

Published by Hyperion

280 pages, 2001



What Was That?

Reviewed by David Abrams


After I finished reading Anne Ursu's debut novel Spilling Clarence, I promptly forgot about its events and characters. This doesn't bode well for a book whose plot hinges on memory. Not the sudden loss of memory, but the unexpected remembrance of things past.

The trouble with Ursu's novel is it's too easy to forget. It's the equivalent of fogged breath on a window. You can practically see this little patch of a book shrink, fade, vanish.

It's too bad, really, because Ursu casts a pleasant, rhythmic spell with her words and the story certainly has potential. Unfortunately, neither plot nor language rise above the ordinary.

Spilling Clarence is about... is about...

... Um, can you excuse me for a minute? I need to refresh my memory.

[whispery riffle of turning pages]

[soft groan of brain cells rousing and getting back to work]

Ah yes, here we go now I remember. Sort of.

Spilling Clarence is about the aftermath of an accident at a psychopharmaceutical factory in Clarence, Minnesota. The town and the drug released into the atmosphere -- deletrium -- are fictional, but the ghosts of Love Canal and Three Mile Island are never far away. The odorless deletrium wafts across Clarence, seeping into brains, firing neurons and releasing memories in every resident. This is okay if you're only nine years old, but what if you're seventy-nine and must cope with everything from first loves to the horrors of Auschwitz (not to mention having to relive bad-fashion eras like the 1970s)? Understandably, the elderly population takes the accident pretty hard, some of them succumbing to catatonia.

For the most part, characters sit around anxiously fretting over the home movies playing in their heads. Pages and pages of crying jags, sleeplessness and lethargy later, the reader begins to wonder at the sanity of the town's residents. Few, if any, do the logical thing: move out of town at least until the cloud of deletrium dissipates.

I suppose I shouldn't expect logic from a story like this. It is, after all, a fairy tale -- or, more accurately, one of those quirky-town movies we like to call "dramedies." Ursu's pen skips lightly across the page, breezing through the plot with characters the thickness of paper dolls. Most of them seem to be wearing demeanors clipped from your average Anne Tyler novel.

Ursu's omniscient voice -- the novel's strongest suit -- is like a roving camera going down the elm-lined streets, peeping behind curtains, interrupting breakfasts. We eavesdrop, but we never really get to know (or love) these poor memory-fraught folks.

It's been several weeks since I finished Spilling Clarence and the only person I can recall with any accuracy is Madeleine, a novelist in the twilight of her life who must cope with memories of an unsatisfying marriage to a husband long dead. Madeleine is warm and personable, but as for the rest -- her freshly widowed son, his precocious daughter, a young unhappy woman, her workaholic fiancé -- ah fuhgeddaboudit. | April 2002


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.