Jul/Aug 2022  •   Reviews & Interviews

57 Varieties of Suffering

Review by Jesse Hilson

The Ketchup Factory.
JP Vallières.
Raven15 Books. 2021. 237 pp.
ISBN 979-8561742224.

A novel's setting can sometimes have no real relation to the foregrounded activity of the plot, or if there is a connection, something naturalistic and holistic: Joyce's Ulysses famously takes place in a granular Dublin reimagined from the distance of exile; Nabokov's The Gift is set in an emigre milieu within 1920s Berlin that the protagonist Fyodor openly hates; Updike's Rabbit, Run takes place in the fictionalized Pennsylvania "flowerpot city" of Brewer. When the background is naturalistic, certain contrasting effects are perhaps maximized. The plot commands the reader's attention while the environment around the plot may subtly ooze by with its familiarity and our complacent recognition.

Then there are novels like JP Vallières' debut, The Ketchup Factory. Its plot, influenced by works such as Jackson's "The Lottery" and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, does grab our attention and have its moving parts, but the setting is as glaring as a torture chamber lit by fluorescent bulbs. An unnamed community in a no man's land is populated by factory workers who make ketchup for everyone's "nutrition." The ketchup's main ingredient? Blood, supplied by individuals who have volunteered or through some other strange course of events come to be crucified publicly. One of the most venerated occupations in this horrorscape is the job of holding the buckets to receive the "drippings," which the latest issue of Business Weekly claims to be one of the most competitive positions in the country. The lineaments of a heavily Christianized atmosphere are present, but there seems to be little discussion of the familiar trappings of religion, whether redemption, sin, the afterlife, or Jesus Christ himself. It's too late for martyrdom in this world. People are merely crucified all across the land, and bleed in the name of ketchup production. And everybody just lives with it and goes about their lives.

Benji, the novel's main character, works at the factory twisting white caps on bottles, and charts a course of personal anguish against this outlandish, frightening background. Part of the tale's unsettling effect is his oblivious separation from the Golgotha that sustains his physical world. The reader is drawn into Benji's life in spite of the ritualized economy of death all around him. His main quest is to find love, and he is drawn into several affairs with married women. One of them, his boss Trisha, wants Benji to be her office assistant. Another, Lilly, lives with her handyman husband Fred in an ominous house discovered once at the end of Benji's afternoon dog walk. But Benji pines for Michelle, a painter of the death spectacles put on parade in this community. Michelle is also married, and the reader follows her through a subplot or two with her husband as she receives a clumsy love note from Benji, whom she knew from another life.

The Ketchup Factory handles all this furtive romantic activity with more alarming directness than it handles the incidentally crucified subjects dangling above people's yards. This directness manages to be both menacing and playful, as if acted out by creepy children playing doctor. It's as if Updike's infidelities were pursued not in a space safely clothed by his trademark belletrism, sardonic polish, and 20th century sophistication, but in a naked, wide open Eraserhead-like environment, uncomfortable to inhabit as readers. Here Benji and his childishly earnest lovers frolic like idiots surrounded by death-totems, which are misunderstood by the innocent characters in that world, yet clearly reminding us of sin. It's thrilling to see such stark behavior. Otherwise, you might wish that the masks could be put back on—if anybody could quite seem to remember where they placed them last. Not that you could blame them; look at where the book takes place. The housewife Lilly meditates on her intricate love web:

A tear fell from her left eye. The tear was Benji's tortured future in liquid form. Lilly didn't want him to suffer. But she'd be ready to snatch him when it was time... The cross was so good for situations like this. It was like a wand. Wave the wand and all your troubles go away. Vanish. Poof! The cross was her wand, and there it was outside. Soon, no more Benji. No more love lust. Back to Fred. Back to the old man. But she knew it would happen again. She would beckon another young man. Have her way, and then encourage her husband to build another cross. This wasn't the first time.

The telegraphic effect of the prose is disquieting, and some of these POVs are positioned inside heads we might not want to visit, mainly Benji's as he suffers a progressive break from reality in tandem with his dissatisfying amorous adventures. As Benji ventures deeper into a paranoid and hallucinatory personal complex, including terrors that bugs are infesting his head and that endless drifts of his dandruff only visible to him are choking other people, we're along for the ride with no safety bar. Benji eventually suffers collapses threatening more than just his own job and well-being. As a suspense novel, The Ketchup Factory grows thicker and thicker in the final third; Vallières' storytelling methods during the novel's climax made me feel as though I were watching a car crash in slow motion. From inside one of the cars.

In spite of all this, the novel is funny, driven in part by the speculative extravagance of the story. Novel-consumers in the first case acquire an understanding of the gravity surrounding the lives of these worker bees trying to find love and fulfillment, and when a character says something funny in this off-kilter rumpus room streaked with gore, the effect is amplified. It's questionable whether one could even call it black comedy, as black comedy is, in a manner of speaking, still on the spectrum of recognizable colors.


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