By Marshall Moore
Signal 8 Press/Typhoon Media
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Seth Harrington, the protagonist of Marshall Moore’s novel Bitter Orange, is a disaffected young man dealing with the after-effects of 9/11 and a personal sexual confusion. Living in San Francisco as a student, his goal in life is to become a psychologist, specializing in burn-out cases. He wants to aid those chopped up “the Cuisinart of corporate America.” All things keep going normally until he begins to disappear … literally disappear.
What Marshall Moore presents the reader is a psychologically probing look into what happens when someone gains superpowers. In this case it’s invisibility. When Seth realizes he has a superpower, stranger and darker things happen. After surviving a car accident, he hobbles around with a severely injured leg. But deep down he nurtures a festering hatred for the Audi-driving yuppie scum who hit him. It should be noted that Seth isn’t your ordinary student, living like a miser scrounging every last penny. As a veteran of the New York corporate scene, he got out with enough money to live comfortably. In addition, he owns several residential properties on the West Coast. So his hatred of rich yuppie scum, though well-founded, is also just a bit hypocritical.
Despite his physical handicaps, Seth also has to come to terms with his own sexuality, adding another twist to his superpower. He had a brief fling with Elizabeth, but secretly yearns to be with Sang-hee, his roommate. It is ironic that a character with sexual self-loathing has the superpower (or curse) of invisibility. This mirrors society’s treatment of gays until very recently, with homosexuality described as “the sin that dare not speak its name.” Seth’s physical and emotional issues take its toll, creating a situation where things become morally unstable.
After getting harassed by an old woman at the liquor store, Seth steals a couple bottles of wine while invisible. But petty crimes lead to larger crimes, like his trip to Las Vegas and stealing turns into grand larceny. The plot thickens when Seth rescues Elizabeth from a mugger, only to kill him. Elizabeth then relates how Seth received his superpower and her mission for him. She press-gangs him into a scheme that would expose her father, a Korean-American US Senator with presidential ambitions. But Elizabeth may not be telling the whole truth. Is her father really the ultraconservative theocrat she makes him out to be? Or is this simply a family vendetta with Seth as the pawn?
Bitter Orange has come out at the right time in light of society’s interest in the superhero genre. With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on television and caped crusaders from Marvel and DC filling up megaplex screens, we both cherish our heroes, but at the same time cringe at the excesses superheroes could unleash on a unwary population. Moore’s novel has a lot of things going for it. While the above plot summary may strike the reader as yet another story about superpowers turning an ordinary person into a supervillain, Moore keeps an objective eye. Despite writing from Seth’s perspective, we are never instructed that Seth is either good or evil. It’s something we have to judge for ourselves. With great power comes great … well, you know the drill. Another aspect of the novel’s brilliance is Moore’s power of description. Whether it is a vacation in Spain or a Vicodin high, there is an immediacy and snarky genius to the descriptions. As someone who ingested Vicodin while recovering from a broken collarbone, I can attest that Moore got it right. While powerful, numbing, and perversely euphoric, Vicodin is nothing I’d want to return to. (Seriously, use as directed.)
Marshall Moore has written a novel that is effective in its psychological nuance and its acidic portrayal of a post-9/11 corporate burnout.
Out of 10/8.5