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The Laboratory of Love, Patrick Roscoe’s first collection of fiction in over a decade, offers a series of stories that are as raw and as often terrifying as they are astonishingly calm in their exploration of the damaged lives his characters lead—lives that intersect, across these 33 stories in surprising, sometimes shocking, ways. His protagonists suffer absent mothers, withholding fathers, and manipulative abusers, surviving (occasionally) absence and loss, abandon and abandonment.
One of the first stories in the collection, “The History of a Hopeful Heart,” lyrically (thus all the more disturbingly) maps the outer limits of the degradation that a damaged psyche can inflict or, in becoming damaged, endure. In its surreal squalor, its sado-masochistic torture and victimization, it forces an encounter with literal and metaphorical imprisonment, self-abnegation, and self-destruction. Here, and in “Touching Darkness,” a later incarnation of the same scenario, from another perspective, an abusive pathology engenders compulsive and self-annihilating need: “My need for nourishment is what has drawn my lover; the end of my hunger would mean the end of his attention.” Wounding and being wounded become the only way to access feeling, deprivation the only route to some delusion of wholeness.
Stories like this, “The Sacred Flame” (about a serial arsonist compelled to recapitulate the scene of his early trauma) and “The Truth about Love” (about the loyal lover of a serial killer), seems less to luxuriate in pathologies, than to expose the legacy of others’ madness or abuse, revisited upon the self and others, again and again.
But if these characters, as the collection’s titular story “The Laboratory of Love” makes most explicit, are, at least symbolically, specimens in an attempt to map the contours of the experience of desire and need, Roscoe has not set out to make a fetish of the damaged human being, the wounded or the wound. Rather, he seems most urgently to acknowledge and assert their presence in the world, to mark the scope of the mercilessness of compulsion, of longing, and of the reverberating impact of degradation.
The globally disparate, yet often familiar, settings of these stories suggest that certain kinds of striving and suffering can emerge anywhere. In series of stories, set on several continents, a brother and sister cope with the madness of their mother, Ardis, a madness that generates more madness, an inheritance of paranoia and dissociation that has surprising repercussions. In another series, the abandoned son of a nude dancer seeks solace in memory and in the possibility of friendship with a mysterious and paranoid playmate. Throughout these stories, entwined in often devastating ways, are attempts to accommodate the past, survive the present, and, somehow imagine a possible future. In “The Real Truth,” the first of the series about the dancer’s son, the narrator observes: “But I came to believe that what is really true and more than true is always what you wish, how you hope, the way it all must be.” But hope can be meager nourishment, even when it is the only nourishment to be had. Hope is a thing only accessible to some, and even then, as “The Murdered Child” later reminds us, unexpectedly and shockingly, destruction may lie in wait.
The collection’s titular story, “The Laboratory of Love,” a meditative meta-narrative that comes near the end of the collection, revisits questions of identity and self-examination in a convergence of characters’ voices and a divergence of identities. It is here that deprivation, absence, and loss become subjects for examination, as the starting points for the urge toward love, toward connection. Indeed, the last word of the final story of the collection, “Rorschach V: The Last Word,” is “Love.” And what these stories reveal is that what masquerades as love can so often be a compromising combination of longing, hope, compulsion, and desperation.
The Laboratory of Love
By Patrick Roscoe
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551525211, 320 pp.