by James Lindenschmidt
I love the idea: souls travel in packs. It works on several levels, and can describe the peculiar bonds souls form with one another, in countless different ways and contexts. Everyone has the experience of meeting someone for the first time, with immediate rapport, a feeling of connection, where the souls effortlessly fit together like long-lost pack-companions. Packs mean that you depend on one another, you protect one another, and you look out for one another. T. Thorn Coyle’s Like Water is a story of such a pack of souls.
Like Water is set in “in-between Oakland.” I don’t have much personal connection to Oakland, but the setting of the novel is nonetheless quite familiar to me, being situated in the post-Occupy radical community, in academia, in paganism, & in the polyamory community. These are my people. So the story’s context got my attention right away.
As did the event that drives the course of the novel. This event occurs before the novel begins, so I don’t need spoilers to say that Alex, one of the main characters in the story, is killed when a police officer hits him with a taser and it disrupts his heart. Much of the story revolves around people coming to terms with Alex’s death, moving on from it, and using it as fuel for their own inner fires. Jonah, Alex’s best friend, in particular has difficulty adapting to the world without Alex, and much of the story revolves around his particular struggle doing so. And of course, we hear quite a bit about Alex’s struggle adapting to death.
There are many things to like about Coyle’s first novel. First of all, I dig the writing style. I’ve read a fair amount of her stuff over the years, but this is the first time I’ve read her fiction (and I believe this is her first published novel). It can be a challenge for a nonfiction writer to enter the realm of fiction, but Coyle does so seamlessly. We do hear a lot of the character’s inner thoughts, almost nonfiction contained within the fiction, with some nice philosophizing in the “thought bubbles” each character has. For instance, in one passage, Alex is reminiscing about when he was alive, thinking about his lover, Amber:
Nothing wrong with sex. Most art required it. The best art grabbed us kicking and screaming and wrestled us down to look something in the face. To feel something, once and for all. That impulse was the power of life. The power of life was sex. People mistook this all the time. Even the gentlest art — the paintings of sunrise over water, the love songs that were filled with sweetness — if it was good, it tapped that primal life connection. Picasso? Tupac? Zora? ‘Yonce? They ripped your guts out. Great art requires us to confront life. To confront ourselves. That’s why it’s so painful sometimes (71).
I also liked the metaphysics of the book. The fact that Alex is the speaker in several chapters (each chapter has its own speaker) despite being dead is a nice touch, as are Coyle’s insights of the dead. They have no sense of smell, for instance, and that’s the biggest jolt of novelty they must grow accustomed to. In addition to the dead themselves, Calliah, Jonah’s partner, has the ability sometimes to see the dead:
I don’t see ghosts all the time, thank goodness. I seem to see them only when there is some trauma, or a message to be passed along. Mostly my ghostly encounters are just about having a sense of something “other” hanging around. It’s not like suddenly there are figures with gold teeth floating around me… It’s gone. Although I hadn’t really seen Alex yet, I knew when he was around. And not just when I was picking up on the sense of him (81).
By focusing on several consciousnesses, alive and dead, having their experiences, Coyle weaves fertile ground to tell a good story. And tell a good story she does.
I loved “the Moms,” or Alex and Jonah’s Marxist & Anarchist mothers. These matriarchs raised their children together in radical, intentional communities, still working together even after their children are grown. I got a chuckle out of Kate, the token polyamorous witch; it seemed like Coyle had fun with her character and the insights she provides. I liked the rapping in the novel, which is strange because reading rap lyrics is a vastly different experience than listening to music. Coyle credits MC Do D.A.T for “lending Alex his rhymes,” and they are good. I’m not sure how Coyle managed to convey the energy of a live performance with music into text, but she did.
Despite the 3000 miles between me and Oakland, I feel that Like Water is a story about my tribe, my comrades. The reality of police brutality, violence, and murder of civilians on the streets is foregrounded in the story, but the novel never comes across as preachy or even judgmental. The fact is, these characters must endure, each in their own way, in the aftermath of state-sanctioned murder. This is the story of Like Water.
Because this is a story about my tribe, I really wanted to like the novel. I am happy to say I didn’t have to work very hard to do so. I recommend this novel, and I can’t wait to read more fiction from T. Thorn Coyle.