Review: Alice & Dorothy

By Andrew G. Dombalagian

Schnarr, J.W. Alice & Dorothy. Northern Frights Publishing, 2011. $15.95. ISBN: 978-0-9734837-8-9.

Fans adore crossovers. Even if audiences cluck their tongues and wag their fingers, deep down, they are fascinated by two worlds meeting. Everyone wants Batman to team up with Superman, Aliens to fight Predators, and vampires to either kill or make out with werewolves. Personally, I’m still dreaming of a (platonic) Mirror’s Edge/Portal crossover; I think Faith and Chell, two of the decade’s best video game characters, would make a superb team. One of literature’s more popular pairings is reimagined – in a far-from-platonic manner – by J.W. Schnarr in his novel, Alice & Dorothy.

Painting the fantastic adventures of L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale of Oz and Lewis Carrol’s Alice of Wonderland as the product of mental illness is not a revolutionary idea. Neither is having the two meet and fall in love a new spin on this pairing. When Schnarr had the two women rip off a drug dealer and lead a cross-country crime spree, he set his story apart from the pack. Heck, Schnarr practically delves into a bizarre Alice & Dorothy, Thelma & Louise crossover by the story’s sordid, disastrous, disturbing end.

After she kills a john who tries to rape her, a bad drug trip lands prostitute Alice Pleasance in the hospital psychiatric ward. There, she charms Dorothy Gale, a girl obsessed with The Weather Channel who has constructed an elaborate fantasy world to cope with her parents’ death. The women quickly hatch a plan to escape the hospital. After stopping at the house of Alice’s drug dealer, Rabbit, for cash and a car, Alice and Dorothy begin their self-destructive journey of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, murder, and the creepiest hallucinations this side of Silent Hill.

The sickening effectiveness of Schnarr’s surreal, nightmarish descriptions was one of the scant strengths of this novel. The mercilessly vivid scenes of Alice’s descents into a psychotic break were rife with enough bodily fluids and excrement, violence, profanity, and utter gore to make any audience squirm. The entire story was a tea party of blood, hosted by Alice’s avatar of chaos, the Mad Hatter (whose name, curiously, Schnarr misspells in every single instance within the book). Rampant brutality and cruelty are Schnarr’s forte, even though they are not my cup of tea.

It was the treatment of women in this novel that especially kept me from enjoying Alice & Dorothy. Schnarr spends the 270-page run of the story (not counting 20 pages of filler and ads) torturing his female protagonists. Ms. Pleasance and Ms. Gale are each subjected to an attempted rape, receive brutal thrashings, and suffer gunshot wounds. When they get a moment to lick their wounds, the pair must bandage themselves in a gas station bathroom. (Right before they get frisky, of course). Dorothy’s optimism and Alice’s determination were admirable, but after a certain point, the novel’s interminable efforts to beat them down became intolerable. At least, if the women were granted one last triumph, it would be worthwhile, but that grand awaited moment never arrives.

Instead of triumph, the women are only treated to a climactic scene of insurmountable horror, finding death and the bloated mass of the Queen of Hearts. Their enemies, real or hallucinated, are victorious in the end. Alice and Dorothy do not accomplish anything. They hardly evolve as characters; they certainly do not improve as people. Whereas Thelma and Louise were, at least symbolically, on the run from oppressive societal and gender roles, Alice and Dorothy only run from their own horrific crimes. It is hard to become attached to characters who, by the climax, are revealed to be little more than a monster and a victim. One singular moment blossoms near the end when both characters, and the reader, discover a sense of deep satisfaction for having met one another, even in the face of looming destruction. This is a brief window of sentimental clarity that feels genuinely moving, but by that time, the protagonists are long past redemption.

The epilogue is what staved off the lion’s share of my disdain for this novel. Thirty-nine chapters of graphic violence, drug glorification, and exploitation of women had left a horrid taste in my mouth. One parting scene with Alice and Dorothy’s onetime psychiatrist, Dr. Weller, the ignored voice of reason in their ordeal, offered a ray of light in the bleak, dirty, disgusting atmosphere of the novel. The duo’s crime spree quickly became legendary and everyone had cashed in on the story, even if they hardly knew Alice and Dorothy. However, Dr. Weller refused to sell out his patients’ confidential information. This mental health professional, who had once offered the best chance for the women’s survival, would not feed into the same culture of depravity that thrives on gruesome stories like Alice & Dorothy. This final scene, offering a condemnation of the entire preceding story, made the nauseating journey worthwhile.

The mood of Alice & Dorothy is one of lost hope. Two anti-heroines struggle against their vices, real-world threats, and inner demons, but ultimately cannot overcome the monstrosities. Some characters find victory and others find truth. The only prize that these women find is each other and, strangely, that seems like enough for them. There are overtones of Literary Naturalism (a term that hearkens back to English class) inherent in this novel. There is no idealistic moralism, only harsh reality. No gods or wizards to make things right, only the cold and ceaseless turning of the universe. This realism is refreshing in genre fiction, even if it comes packaged in the greasy wrapper of sensationalist violence and filth.

Schnarr’s Alice & Dorothy is not for audiences who want a clean, moralistic, and uplifting read. Fans of the gritty and bleak, or who enjoy watching the line between fantasy and delusion blur hopelessly, will find much to enjoy here. The novel is ninety percent wretched and ten percent wonderful, which is arguably the same ratio as the real world. Schnarr should proofread his work more closely, as his grammatical errors became quite distracting towards the end of this novel. Although I found much of the story repulsive, since that was the reaction Schnarr was likely aiming for, I suppose he’s earned his kudos. If you have a taste for the perverse with your macabre psychological horror/fantasy, check out J.W. Schnarr’s Alice & Dorothy.

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