CRITIPEG: Small Predators

Jennifer Ilse Black, 144 pages, ARP Books, June 2018

Jennifer Ilse Black offers a caustic ode to the Captain Planet generation in her debut novella Small Predators, published by ARP Books.

Under the pressure of the exigent obligation to steer humanity from its catastrophic course, a collective of profoundly eco-connected millennial post-secondary students goes guerrilla at a mildly fictionalized version of the University of Manitoba.

The novella materialized during Black’s graduate studies at the institution. It began as her master’s thesis. Its framework is built from her own experiences on that campus through two degrees and in collaboration with a handful of student activist groups.

More specific autobiographical parallels, including Black’s Hungarian heritage and her queer identity, nudge their way into the personal history of her narrator, Fox.

There is an inescapable intimacy of tone. Black patches the largely first-person narrative with interjections of a journalistic article, dramatic meeting minutes, vivid prose and comparative lists. The medley of styles prompts a sense of reading a private notebook and the variety of addenda stuffed between the pages.

From the first moments, Fox anthropomorphizes the complementary systems of the natural universe, interpreting emotional interactions to be observed between the prairie and the sun:

“The prairie asks the sun what it’s feeling, and the sun responds in shades and bursts of sky; the prairie is compassionate, empathetic, it helps the sun communicate.”

Grieving the constantly creeping suburban sprawl while grasping at the last days of unadulterated landscapes, Fox faces the burden of duty in the midst of environmental crisis. With a desperate vulnerability, she needles the apathy of industry and institution, of leadership and its masses.

Black’s characters wade into the dark, dysfunctional coping habits common within their anxiety-ridden peer group. The spectrum stretches from complete dissociation to hallucinatory sensory overload.

Black’s characters launch themselves into a dystopian fantasy, channelling the defilement of the environment into their perceived experience.

They congregate in an epicentre of decay deep within the university’s tunnel system, where everything seeps and reeks. They flood the campus with sewage and are swallowed into the earth. They pick at their bodies as humanity picks at the earth – the plague of climate change bursts through in grotesquely poetic episodes of auto-mutilation.

Overtly scatological and sanguine, the dimension Black creates dares to romanticize destructive activism, self-harm and suicidal ideation in the age of trigger warnings.

Small Predators is a gruesome enviroethical melodrama for the age: a compact and potent literary bender for the inner eco-activist. Black’s previous creative works have lingered in the realms of personal and environmental trauma. In her debut novella, she pulls readers through a portal into a hyperbolically amplified surreality saturated in the tragedy of both.

Published in Volume 73, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 28, 2019)

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