Joan Wilking’s prose is breezy even though the material is heavy. Her first book Mycology is the winner of the 2016 Wild Onion Novella Prize bestowed by Chicago publisher Curbside Splendor.
Perspective switches between four characters: the tired partner of a careless cheater, a photographer unable to understand intimacy, a victim of child rape, and a poisonous mushroom sprouting in the wilderness.
Each character, Martin, Luca, Charlotte, and the spores of a deadly strain of Amanita are somehow both victims of circumstance and perpetuators of vicious violence.
The violence isn’t gory, or shocking, but the mundane sort found in silences. The human protagonists are broken, and Wilking paints on each page all the reasons why. Luca’s beauty is his curse, whereas Charlotte refuses to acknowledge beauty in her life. Martin’s impotence shackles him to an unproductive relationship, and as the seasons pass, situations and people grow sick and decay. That is until the finality of death causes all characters to cross paths and have their stories intertwine for a new chance at life.
In some ways, Wilking’s writing is realistic. There are moments where you and another are in the right place at the right time and everything is just right. But no moment is continuous, especially the ones we want to last. In these ways, Wilking’s writing is fantastical; the stark contrast between the gloominess and desperation of the first half of the novel and the continuously growing joy found in the second makes the ending at best seem unearned, and at worst, self-indulgent. There’s even a Pretty Womenesque shopping montage, cheeky and yet not ironic.
Compared to Binary Star, a 2015 indie hit, Mycology is straight up cheery. Both have a cast of deeply flawed characters, but while Binary Star dwells and digs into the neurosis of its anti-hero, Wilking refuses for her characters to be destroyed by themselves. Ultimately, Mycology is a hopeful story.
Literature’s favorite theme is hopelessness, especially now. Look at NW, Gone Girl, and the post-Twilight YA landscape. For novels that resolve with less hysteria, their endings are tempered by sacrifice and loss. In Mycology, Wilking steps away from what many authors take to heart: that the world is nasty, brutish, and short.
While Wilking’ happy ending may not be convincing, the sincerity that she wishes the best for her characters is immense and original. In a time when everything is soaked in sarcasm, the earnestness of the novel is reason enough to read the book.
Buy Mycology from Curbside Splendor Publishing for $10, or stop by their stand in Revival Food Hall.