Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Book Review: OKPsyche by Anya Johanna DeNiro

A strange, surreal, emotional and deeply lyrical window into a woman's life through peculiar events

One of my longrunning soapboxes that I occasionally like to climb up onto is that we need more fucking weird books. The ones where, when you try to explain what it's about to someone, you come up blank and are forced to wave your hands, roughly describe the vibes and then give up, foisting it into their hands and telling them to just read it, then they'll understand. The stories where words fail you and you need simply to emote at people until they join your little growing cult, and go on to vibrate incoherently at people themselves to read this inexplicable book. I love those ones. The fucking weird ones.

But the "words fail you" part is a bit of a bugger for a reviewer. My entire purpose in this whole situation is to put some words around things in a manner that is at the very least intended to be one (or more, if we're feeling fancy) of helpful, persuasive, instructive or entertaining. So let's see what we can do.

Sometimes, if you're lucky, someone will buy you a present. And not just any present, but the type that surprises you—this wasn't on any list you made, or something you asked for. It's a present that comes entirely out of the blue, something you didn't even know existed, but now it's been handed to you, you realise you've never wanted anything more*. But it's ok! You just unwrapped it, so that insatiable desire has been satiated immediately, and you get the double joy of discovering it and having it all to experience together. That is the experience of reading OKPsyche. I knew very little about it before beginning, only that Adri recommended it highly. I didn't really know the plot or the vibe or... much of anything at all. But sitting reading it on the train, being immersed in it, was the experience of knowing I had desperately wanted something like this, if only I'd thought to ask.

OKPsyche is the surreal story of a woman —a trans woman— who is struggling. With dating, with friendship, with her relationship with her son, with her relationship with her mother. Big themes. It is a story deeply seated within her perspective as she navigates these, in a slipshod, hallucinogenic order, pulling in characters who may or may not exist, and may or may not be able to solve her problems. It's not a book where things are ever really explained, but one where you just have to sit back and let the experience, and more importantly the emotions, wash over you. It's an emotionally delicate novel, if nothing else—not that the emotions it portrays are gentle, small ones, but that DeNiro does so with scalpel accuracy, cutting into the finest threads of feeling as you tangle through the experience of the plot.

And this is, in many ways, why it is such a hard story to pin to the page. Things happen —of course things happen— through the course of the story. But that's not what the story is about. It is instead one so deeply rooted in feeling that everything else simply... falls away. And those are always the stories it is hard to hold in your hands, to sum up to someone else. 

If I tell you that she stumbles into contact with a strange helper who, after slightly eyerolling her love life problems, arranges a parcel be sent to her that contains a boyfriend she can construct for herself, it sounds like a wacky, lighthearted, silly story. But if I also tell you she has to grapple with her mother's dying just as she's trying to reconcile with her son, who is learning to relate to who she is now... well, that's not wacky at all. In some stories, that juxtaposition would feel callous, or disingenuous, the silliness of the one undermining the other. OKPsyche never feels callous. The strangeness of the tone and telling make the two distinct parts —and the many others, lest you assume this is a book of only two themes— become one, and creates a coherent, albeit dreamlike, feeling to the whole. Instead of adding layers of distance that keep us at arm's length from the emotional resonance of the story, somehow the surreality of it all actually pulls us in closer, forcing us to focus on the core of it all, rather than dwelling on the details, because sometimes the details are so self-evidently mad, you simply have to.

Most of all though, the surreality is only that quarter-turn surreality that still has its feelers deep into the real. It's nonsense, but it's the sort of nonsense that feels like a true telling of the inside of someone's head, of the way someone might think, might experience the world. It feels authentic precisely because it's so odd.

And that contrast is at the heart of what the story does so well—it's full of those contrasts. Beautiful prose for mundane situations. Deep compassion for those who don't always have compassion for you. Emotional closure for a story that doesn't truly end (because what story ever really does?). The key for such stories is to find the fulcrum, and DeNiro has balanced things perfectly here. The tone, the pacing, the moments of depth, all placed just so to leave you breathless, while not having a single hair out of place—the artful artlessness of proper craft. You close the final page and you see how much skill has gone into every word of it, and appreciate it all the more.

Ultimately, though, it's still a story that leaves me at a loss. For so small a volume, it looms too large to be captured in 1,000 words and change. It craves hand gestures, tone of voice, all the little things that tell the story when we can't tell the story. So please, picture me waving my hands, leaning forward, emphasising that this book is something special. Because it is. And if you read it, hopefully you'll be left speechless too.

*this brought to you by the lasercut wooden put-it-together-yourself model of the Vettweiss Froitzheim dice tower I was once given for Christmas, which I cherish greatly

The Math

Highlights: beautiful prose, complex emotions, weirdness

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference: DeNiro, Anya Johanna. OKPsyche [Small Beer Press, 2023].

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.