Casting Shadows Everywhere, by L.T. Vargus
by E. Branden Hart
To truly appreciate L.T. Vargus’s novel, Casting Shadows Everywhere, we must first define the genre of transgressive fiction. The term was first defined in The Atlantic Monthly “Word Watch” column in December, 1996, as:
“. . . a literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premises that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.”
Sounds like a pretty good definition to me, but it’s missing something. Since then, many critics and authors have qualified definitions like the one above by adding that the root of a good transgressive story is a protagonist who is looking for freedom—typically, freedom against the morals and structure of modern culture.
Sound familiar? It should. Great works of transgressive fiction include Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (in fact, most of Chucky P.’s work falls into this genre), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
Why is all of this important? Because Casting Shadows Everywhere is classic transgressive fiction, and like many things in life, if you’ve never tried it before, it’s going to taste pretty awful. So if you aren’t familiar with transgressive fiction or don’t like the genre, this may not be the book for you.
But if you are and you do, do yourself a favor and pick up this book. I’m not going to give away too much about the story—it’s too great on its own. But the plot goes something like this: teenage boy who isn’t popular, isn’t the most athletic guy, or good looking, has a cool older cousin; Older cousin catches wind that teenage boy is getting pushed around in school and tries to help him by teaching him not how to fight, but by how to stop being afraid.
What follows is a standard transgressive narrative: it starts out fairly tame, with the protagonist, Jake, learning how to stop being scared of society, of rules, of himself. And then things quickly escalate, bordering on the absurd, until we reach the breaking point and know that Jake will never be the same person again—and are left pondering whether he is truly better for it or not.
The book is written in first person as excerpts from Jake’s diary, and Vargus does an incredible job of adapting to the affect and linguistic patterns of a teenage boy. The book is well-edited: I noticed only a few, subtle typos and places where the language could have been smoothed out a bit. But otherwise, the book is filled with wonderful quotes that would be at home in any work of transgressive fiction. For example, when lamenting his relationship with his dad, Jake quips: “At this point I have probably spent more time in my life watching McDonald’s and Wal-Mart commercials than I have spent talking to my own father.” That sentence captures the theme of good transgressive fiction: the absurd nature of the way modern culture erodes what is truly important in life.
The older cousin, Nick, represents another pillar of transgressive fiction: the ambiguity of right and wrong. At one point, he tells Jake, “There ain’t no right or wrong. None of it means nothin’. There is just things that happen.” Nick’s relationship with Jake is very reminiscent of Tyler Durden and Jack in Fight Club: Like Jack, Jake is figuring out how to deal with a shitty world that just doesn’t make any sense, and like Tyler, Nick is there to mentor Jake on his unique vision for humanity.
But that’s where the similarities stop. Unlike Fight Club, the characters in Casting Shadows Everywhere are insulated and most concerned with the world immediately around them. There are no grand plans for erasing the credit record, for getting humanity back to its roots. Nick and Jake are just trying to get through their own lives. And fuck everyone else.
Vargus has a true talent, and because of it, Casting Shadows Everywhere was a quick ride. Her characters lived and breathed (until they didn’t), and the writing is excellent. As a modern transgressive novel, Casting Shadows Everywhere is heads above some of the other choices out there. Its simple structure and language support a layered narrative that will make you question yourself, those around you, and just what kind of culture we’ve become.
For those just getting into the transgressive fiction genre, do yourself a favor and read a couple of the books I mentioned above first. It is not a genre for everyone. But if you’re looking for a fresh literary perspective on the modern world and the human condition, transgressive fiction is the best way to get there. And L.T. Vargus’s Casting Shadows Everywhere is a shining example of how to do it well.
E. Branden Hart is Executive Editor of EmptySinkPublishing.com. He lives and works in San Antonio. His fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Calamities Press, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology, which is available on Kindle and in paperback by XChyler Publishing.