Like fairy tales stripped of their polished retellings, life can unfold in unexpected and often terrible ways. Elana K. Arnold’s Infandous interweaves fairy tales, myths and folklore with the ordinary life of an American teenager to reflect the raw and gruesome nature of these stories. The novel is unapologetic and brusque, cutting into the cushioned bubble of Disney-fied fairy tales with the jagged edges of reality in a reminder that the most didactic stories are often founded upon pain and anguish.
The novel opens with Arnold’s retelling of the Grimm brothers’ Sleeping Beauty. Throughout the text, she prefaces profound moments of her protagonist’s life with fables to contextualize the grotesque elements from which Arnold draws inspiration. At its heart, Infandous is a kunstlerroman chronicling the growth of Sephora Golding. Born to an ostracised ex-model and living in a cramped apartment on the washed-up streets of Venice Beach, Sephora is a budding artist who is trudging through the trials of high school and adolescence. She carries a terrible secret that she hesitates to reveal, and it is only through art that she finds liberation. Her world is both sensitive and sensual, with an acerbic edge underscoring conversations surrounding wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness.
It is the beginning of summer and Sephora has grudgingly enrolled in summer school. The streets of Venice Beach are concrete confines; the ocean, which lies just out of arm’s reach, licks and lathers the multitude of bodies lounging in the water. Sephora is an amateur surfer. She is quite unimpressive amidst the throngs of adept athletes, but she can float along, which is all she really needs. Life, much like the undulating surface of the ocean, is never smooth and easy-going. With little money in her pocket and a brief fling with an older man that soon turns sour, Sephora deftly points out that “things don’t really turn out the way they do in fairy tales.”
The novel is narrated by Sephora, whose sardonic, matter-of-fact tone relates perfectly the awkward and often arduous journey to self-discovery. She is obsessively indulgent in her mother’s beauty, but she also finds great appeal in the grotesque, perhaps due to her rotten encounters with people who have flitted in and out of her life. Few things are capable of capturing her interest and she often views life with an exasperating indifference. Infandous is reminiscent of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, whose protagonist, Melinda Sordino, also sheds light on some of the most unpleasant moments of life. Both girls eventually find solace through art, and both exude a cynicism that is alienating to even the people closest to them. If there were an alternate universe in which Sephora and Melinda’s narratives could unite, they would be quite fond of each other.
Infandous progressives in a fairly straightforward fashion with sporadic bumps along the way. The novel has no distinct narrative arc and therefore will not appeal to all readers. Sephora’s attitude remains fairly unaffected throughout the novel even as she recounts her trials, to the point where the narrative is almost monotonous. Unlike Anderson’s Speak, Infandous doesn’t offer a clear “before and after” of Sephora’s life, so it’s hard to gauge the psychological and emotional effects of certain repercussions. It’s almost as if Sephora doesn’t care, and when the character herself doesn’t care, it becomes difficult for readers to be emotionally invested. Sympathy is a strong influence in realistic fiction that dabbles in controversial topics. It establishes an emotional connection between readers and the character that is pivotal to the alluring “factor” of the novel. When the character doesn’t show any vulnerabilities that emotionally hook the reader, the narrative forfeits a portion of its appeal.
Arnold’s novel doesn’t quite achieve the emotional gravity as similar books of its genre, but it is a refreshing approach to topics that have been explored in numerous texts and in a variety of ways. Those who choose to invest in Arnold’s dark kunstlerroman will be rewarded with a story in which morbid tales of the past resurface to help shape a young woman’s understanding of her relationships and choices.