My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Okay, we need to get one thing out of the way: The title of this book, Penetralia, is not actually as dirty as it sounds. The definition is:
1. the innermost parts or recesses of a place or thing.
2. the most private or secret things.
Okay, so you can get your mind out of the gutter.
Okay, now put your mind right back in that gutter.
Penetralia by Jordan Krall is a hard book to get your head around. You’re constantly slapped around by images of physical and sexual violence, and yet there’s a constant promise that there’s going to be a grand revelation of wisdom through these actions. The story follows a family who is seeking through violent experiments on unwilling subjects/victims for an ultimate Wisdom as prescribed through ancient texts. The grown-up brother and sister, Philip and Elizabeth, are conducting these experiments on their own in their father’s absence, who dresses in a plague doctor costume and is away for unknown reasons but will be returning soon.
Right away, you will realize that it takes a strong stomach to get through Penetralia. Krall has never shied away from gross and violent gross imagery before. In some books, like Squid Pulp Blues for example, he seemed have a strange obsession with characters releasing their bowels at inopportune times. In Penetralia, Krall has kicked it up more than a couple of notches. Almost from the get go, you’re shown that this is a very incestuous family, and that some of the experiments performed on their subjects/victims to reveal the ultimate Wisdom involve extraction and consumption of numerous bodily fluids and substances. Seriously, do not read this right after you’ve eaten. I have a cast-iron stomach, and even I felt a little queasy after one of the early scenes where Philip consumes one of their subject’s vomit.
If you can get past this (or even if these parts were cut out or rewritten), it’s not so much a story about torture, murder, and incest, but becomes a story of an extremely dysfunctional family that suffered continual and extreme abuse at the hands of their patriarch. While Philip resents his father for the abuse with every fiber of his being, he still does everything he can to continue his father’s work knowing full well that he will never earn his father’s approval. Elizabeth, on the other hand, has a case of Stockholm syndrome, loving her father deeply even for or because of the abuse she has suffered, despite knowing in the back of her mind that what she has suffered through was horrible and violent.
This made the book very frustrating. Krall is a great writer, and the prose is brilliant throughout, clean (not counting the gross imagery), and quick to read, even with making you stop to reread something or think about a particular scene carefully. But the imagery felt unnecessary to what would have been a fascinating story, and even distracted from it. The disturbing images felt like they were put in for sheer shock value. In that respect, they do their job well. But the story underneath it is actually very interesting. The story of a dysfunctional family who finally come to terms with the abuse they’ve suffered and confronting their abuser is actually quite engaging, but it becomes buried in the shock scenes so heavily that it’s difficult to see. You practically get two separate books, one for shock value and one for a heartbreaking story, but the two don’t mesh well and are constantly fighting for your attention.
Overall, Penetralia has some great writing, a potentially powerful story, and vivid if disturbing imagery. I know that Krall has recently moved away from writing bizarro fiction, and Penetralia may have been his swan song in the genre. It’s certainly a strong and powerful way to bow out, but it was a little too extreme for my tastes. I sort of wish he had bowed out sooner and written Penetralia with more focus on the story than the imagery, which based on his False Magic Kingdom series he can clearly do. Don’t get me wrong. Krall has a real talent for descriptive imagery and storytelling, but in Penetralia, those to forces seem to be at war with each other rather than support each other, making it confusing and not my particular cup of tea.
Penetralia by Jordan Krall earns 3 plague outfits out of 5.