Tigers. Angels. Bombs. Juggling. Horses. Anarchists. Circuses. One albino horse. It's hard to know where to start with a book like The Albino Album, put out by Seven Stories Press. Chavisa Woods (full disclosure: I know her personally, and we're friends) has written a 560-page epic spanning rural Indiana, New York City, St. Louis, punks, rich people, poor people, murder, rape—it's the kind of book that requires lists to even begin to capture.
The bulk of the book follows a lead character whose name we are never told because it's unpronounceable—"a name that [isn't] a name, a name that wasn't even a word." We first come across her as a child in the kind of Southern poverty that's shocking to people who don't live it but is, in the book, simply allowed to be true. There's a tragedy—the kind of tragedy worth being surprised by—and she goes crazy. She ends up in a small town, gets rescued by a Russian butch truck driver named Helen who names her "Mya"—meaning "mine"—then does a little sex work, steals the albino horse that's hers by birthright, ends up in a radical collective house. That's the first hundred pages.
Along the way we cut to other characters, other plots. There's a 13 year old proto-gay named Gabriel, who thinks he's an angel, terrorized by his mother's meth-addicted family in Bushwick; Cindy, a cousin of Mya's, who has trouble holding her temper. Woods gives each of them a world unto themselves and a real story. This is a book of lush specificity. We're only with Gabriel initially for 30 pages—one chapter—but in that 30 pages we get a portrait of the specificity of his longing for a kinder world and the slim odds there are that he'll get it. Throughout the book, the characters aren't shown mercy, but Woods doesn't pass judgement on them either. Everything is written beautifully, and there's nothing hiding the cruelty. It makes for an uncomfortable read.
Wood's first book, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind, was a series of short stories about nothing so much as the way the world mercilessly attacks any show of vulnerability. The Albino Album is an extension of the theme. Intimacy is a weapon. There are no victors - instead there are the people who get to walk away and the people who don't. 560 pages is a long time to spend in this kind of impending terror—knowing that the axe will drop and being unsure exactly when or how. It's the same kind of fear that inhabits the characters—the fear that at any moment someone else in the world will figure out how powerless they are and use it to harm them.
350 pages in was the first point at which I felt exhausted. We had been through so much at this point and yet there was still almost another whole book to go. There was a point at which I wanted a little less - one less story, one less detail, but also one less feeling or emotion or slow-motion fight or heartbreak. The beauty in this book is so fleeting. The redemption never comes without its punishment. Characters, even Mya (the closest thing we have to a protagonist), get exactly what they deserve and then we watch them suffer. But despite this—and as a reader I tend to like a happy ending—I made it through. I genuinely cared about the people I was reading about, their bad decisions, and whether or not they would make it out the other side and find some peace.
There's not exactly hope at the end. Mya's final transformation is terrifying and uncertain; there's no telling if her albino horse and the unlikely knight on it will make it in time to stop her final act of destruction. That's fitting, though, given the rest of the book. We never really know when the world will be kind or when it will be cruel—we just do the best we can, stand up for ourselves, try to figure out who the bad guys are, and try not to let them win. As the reader, the moments of triumph are all the sweeter for the bitterness that surrounds them. This is a lyric, mean book, a queer book to its core, and—days later—I'm still thinking about it, trying to figure out if it's exactly right about the world or exactly wrong. Or, maybe—probably—both.