Do stick figures dream of a third dimension? If they do, that dream springs forth from the creative mind-womb of Julian Porter in the form of his debut novella Hibakusha Don’t Eat Pop-tarts.
On the surface, which is not completely what the heart of the story is about, Hibakusha is told from the point of view of Darla, a self-proclaimed “sad girl” with lots and lots of inner turmoil that she has either placed the blame of its own existence on “The Nothings”, an occasional meal-sized helping of intangible metaphysical/imaginary representation of narcissism, or has refused to confront altogether because that’s what young people do. There’s a lot of psychological art in this book, sometimes conveyed with moderately repetitive descriptions of woe and melodrama which only further illustrates Darla’s lack of experience with life outside of her Nothings-populated head-vault. There is a clear rising of intensity at play here, from the first pages in which we meet Darla, to the final chapter when it all comes to a painfully agonizing realization of apocalyptic “acceptance”. In the beginning, Darla’s hallucinations start off as a mere vehicle of confusion, and throughout the 80-some page novella, they rise in rank from a near jab to the lower ribs, all the way to questioning Darla’s reasoning for not having actually gone through with a suicide attempt. Hibakusha is a simple story laced with the complexity of the young human mind and presents the human condition as a testament to the world unwillingly revolving around it, and also, vice versa. Unlike many stories that detail the angst of teenage minds, Darla already accepts the world she has been thrown into. Her struggle has more to do with cultivating it into a form that makes sense, even if “The Nothings” would rather have her jump off a cliff or step out into rush hour traffic, because they know if Darla can both make sense of her world and move through it on her own terms, they will have no further reason to exist.
Before reading Hibakusha, there was a moment in which I told myself this is Porter’s first book, and as with anyone’s first full-fledged book, whether it’s a novel, a novella, a collection of poems, or anything really, there should be a predetermined understanding that it may not be very good. One would hope that glimmers of potential shine through the cracks that threaten the very foundation of the book’s soul. That being said, Hibakusha Don’t Eat Pop-tarts is not only good for a first book, it’s damn good for any book. Even with the aforementioned slight repetitiveness of some of the descriptions of Darla’s feelings and observations, Hibakusha offers one hell of a tour de force through the growing mind of a stagnant girl during her formative and perhaps most vulnerable years. When I was younger, I remember dating a few girls or even just hanging out with some, who I could liken to Darla. But when I was younger, I couldn’t fathom some of their behaviors, their decisions, or their dramatic mannerisms because, obviously I wasn’t literally inside their head. I may have even ignored them in a way that now I see as having been terribly disheartening. As I grew older, of course, I would learn through different mediums the art of understanding all manners of women, but I could only understand them up to a certain point because… I did not grow up the same way, and on an obvious physical level, I’m not a woman. There’s no way in hell I could empathize with someone like Darla. But in Porter’s novella, I am at least given an opportunity to imagine what it must have been like for her and other girls like her. Darla paints her world with colors and shapes and contortions in place of emotions, worries, and boring words, and with those inflictions, as a reader, a new level of understanding for the beginning stages of the evolving human heart is presented as the main course like a chopped up bleeding corpse on a silver platter at a dinner party I never thought I’d ever be invited to.
Hibakusha is a short book, as novellas are, around ninety pages. But it is exactly as long as it needs to be. It can be read quickly in a single sitting if you’re a fast reader. I recommend taking your time with this one. Reading one chapter every few days was not just because I have a heavy work schedule and a writing schedule on my own, but because each chapter is psychologically and emotionally heavier than the one that came before it. Each one stacks above the other like a totem pole of despair and hopelessness, but I read more and more, and felt as though many of the ideas and scenes blended into one another in the same way the live action and hand-drawn animated segments of Pink Floyd’s The Wall conveyed its tropes and concepts. Hibakusha Don’t Eat Pop-tarts is Julian Porter’s presumption that breaking through the “wall” of a debut work of literature doesn’t have to be a half-assed attempt at being a writer because it’s something that sounds like fun and “anybody can do it”. Something very meticulous was put into motion with this book, and the end result is a cake with black blood frosting that tastes like caramel sauce-dipped powdered donuts. Every author should be proud of themselves for writing their first book, but not all of them should go ahead with publishing it. Julian Porter is among those who’ve fluked the expectations, his debut book is a declaration of war and brutal in its execution; there is nothing about this book that shouldn’t have been written. Hibakusha isn’t simply a launch pad for Porter’s hopeful future as a writer, it’s a starting point and one that should be remembered.
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