Lake of Urine: A Love Story by Guillermo Stitch
To be honest, when originally offered a review copy of this novel some months ago, I nearly turned it down because of its title alone – which is so bizarre and off-putting, but there was something in the summary on the press release that nabbed me: “a sui generis romp through every fairy tale convention and literary trope you can think of”, and also because it is published by a small US press with an interesting scientific name (!) who were willing to send a print copy to the UK. “Sagging Meniscus publishes nonconformist fiction, poetry and literary nonfiction by American and other originals.” So I was hoping that the book would, like the musical Urinetown so they say, be much better than its title promises – and it was!
Lake of Urine is sort of set in the ‘now’, but the kind of now that is more like a ‘then’. It’s as if most technology hasn’t reached out from the big city so the villages still feel like pioneer outposts, very rustic and backwoodsy, the rare intrusions of modern trappings felt like anachronisms which was strange. This world felt more like that of John Crowley’s Little, Big than ours. Lake of Urine is told in four parts each with a different narrator or focus; there’s Emma Wakeling and her two daughters, but we begin with Seiler, a man residing with the Wakelings in the ‘Tiny Village’, as Ms Emma reminds him:
Your brief which I outlined at the time was to be of assistance to me during the winter in the monitoring of my two girls, both of whom were of marriageable age and one of whom was attractive – a siren to the lads of the county.
You see, by this time, both girls were missing, presumed dead. Noranbole disappeared first, a scrap of torn cloth found:
Gingham, yellow and white, certainly Noranbole’s. I turned it over in trembling hands. It had been ripped, maybe by thorns and then again maybe by claws, or teeth. Along one edge the unmistakeable stain of fresh blood. Ms Emma covered her mouth with her hands.
“She can’t be . . . she has chores!”
Seiler had let his passion for measuring things with string get the better of him and taken his eye off the ball, allowing the beauteous Noranbole to fall for local simpleton Bernard and run away to the ‘Big City’. He was so determined to measure the depth of the lake, not content with nearly drowning the family mutt, he actually managed to let the other daughter drown in a subversion of the sport of free diving. She was called Urine, and although named for the stench of her mother’s water, and having the murderous sixth husband of Ms Emma as a father, was much loved by her mother.
Noranbole takes up the story in Part Two. She and Bernard set up home together in the big city and both go out to work. Bernard’s options are limited, for he speaks only in tongues, which only Noranbole can understand, but he becomes a kitchen porter at a noodle bar. Noranbole, however, soon rises to become the CEO of the Big City’s most important firm, chairing board meetings as painful as those in the wonderful BBC satire W1A (available on BBC iPlayer here). Bernard keeps getting into scrapes, requiring Noranbole to come down from her lofty penthouse office to sort him out, leaving her executives to squabble between themselves and get nothing done.
Part Three is Ms Emma’s story – a much-married woman, risen from being the village’s company bike, we hear her story in reverse starting with the most recent husband. Her chapters alternate between husbands and ones telling about the different rooms in her house and their associations. The husband chapters are each named for Emma’s new married name:
Of Noranbole’s father, my fourth husband, I do not speak.
The rest have multiple pages!
In the final part brings we find out what happened to Urine. The lake now stinks! The Tiny Village has become hidebound by bureaucracy and myriad byelaws prevent everyone from practically doing anything without being fined, (echoes of Ella Minnow Pea here). I won’t say anything more about how or whether the story all comes together for a happy ever after ending (it is a fairytale of sorts, remember).
The good people of the Tiny Village reminded me of The Simpsons, especially in the ‘Marge vs the Monorail’ episode (clip below). The story certainly used many fairytale tropes, twisting them into something different alongside its irreverent look at small-town thinking and the Peter Principle in action in the Big City (employees rise in an organisation’s hierarchy to their own level of incompetence). Stitch’s writing is highly visual too, rich in descriptive detail without excessive wordiness, coming in at 214 pages. The characters are all grotesques of the sort that Mervyn Peake did so well in his Gormenghast books, bar the beautiful Noranbole of course, (must re-read Gormenghast one day!)
Y’all know I love quirky books, and Lake of Urine is certainly the most bizarre novel I’ve read in a good while, but it was rather charming in its way! I still dislike the book’s nonconformist (op cit) title, but it was an absolute blast to read.
Source: Review copy – Thank you. Guillermo Stitch, Lake of Urine (Sagging Meniscus, July 2020) trade paperback, 214 pages.