The Soul Standard can be read as neo-noir dystopian fiction inspired by the writings of Irvine Welsh, Michael Lewis, William T. Vollmann, and William Burroughs. The book is set in a speculative world with a tanked economy, streets full of drug addicts, and organ theft. Yes, that’s right. People selling organs. The protagonists consist of broken figures looking for redemption in a bleak world. While different authors composed each of the four parts, the books functions as a single unit—sharing a common setting, language, and tone. These four parts (which follow the seasons from fall to summer) allude to the other sections, creating a loose sense of unity. This structure points to a group of writers looking to create something more than a haphazard anthology, and as a result one can look to the book’s structure for meaning.
“Financial District: Four Corners” resembles Germany after World War I. As a result of inflation, money has become practically worthless. The narrator is Max Phlebalm. Here Caleb J. Ross has some fun with language (phlebotomy being the act of removing blood). In the opening section we discover Max’s economic analysis of this speculative city, moving from the gold standard (physical commodities) to the fiat standard (faith-based commerce) to the soul standard (favor-based commerce). One of the moral dilemmas consists of how Arthur Reiss, a financial tycoon, can get in on the action of a favor-based economy. But the plot centers on a retirement home that acts as bank for organs. After all, “No cooler can maintain an organ the way a human cooler can.”
“Red Light District: Punhos Sagrados” feels like a typical boxing story. The protagonist, Marcel, has to fight a number of matches, and if he wins them all he will earn a significant amount of money. But Author Nik Korpon toys with this plot in a few ways. Marcel plans on giving the money to Carissa, an acquaintance, instead of his sick wife because, “Carissa can have the money from fighting because I will heal Mona myself.” Here the protagonist takes on a saintly role, sacrificing himself for others. He will cure his wife and help Carissa escape Sal, a mafia boss whom Carissa works for. Of course the story takes a twist when Sal approaches Marcel about throwing the match. Suddenly the saint has to decide between damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
“The Outskirts: Golden Geese” centers around Trevor, an unreliable narrator who works at a brothel that has relocated from the city’s red light district to the outskirts in order to offer johns a full-service experience. At first Trevor plays the role of the camera reveling dehumanizing conditions. Women are shipped by the truckload like cattle. Women are sexually assaulted. Women are robbed of their eggs. But the story becomes more intimate when the reader learns about Trevor’s wife and daughter. Drugs destroyed his wife and as a result of her horrific behavior, Trevor refuses to speak her name, a motif that will be echoed in the final section. Towards the end of the section, author Richard Thomas creates emotionally charged sections where Trevor stops being a bystander and starts acting. Here the book’s theme truly starts to emerge.
In “Ghost Town: Jamais Vu,” Jules, who suffers from prosopagnosia (face blindness), never leaves home without a camera. Author Axel Taiari’s plot focuses on Jules searching for his daughter Amelia, who has been missing for three years. At first Jules struggles to speak his daughter’s name, which echoes the previous section. This loss drives him to search for kidnapped kids in an attempt to find his daughter. One day he discovers a mass grave of children. But there he finds that one child is still alive. There is a glimmer of hope. He uses his camera to photograph the atrocity in hope of change. He refuses to be a bystander and instead sends the pictures to all the media outlets, because “citizens will not let this slip. Things can change.”
The book ends with a glimpse of what change looks like. Throughout, this collection tells transgressive stories full of the darkest elements of life. In this darkness, the protagonists have settled into a routine of survival. But in each section characters go out of their way to help others. It points to a glimmer of hope within. Moving from fall to summer, the sections offer readers a regenerative experience that starts with death and moves to life. While seasons act as a poetic metaphor, the protagonists choose to create a better world. They choose not to give up. This points to the authors using genre tropes to create a literary experience. The prose is straightforward and gritty but the actions accumulate and eventually transcends pulp.
As stated in my introduction, you can read this book as pure genre fiction, or you can read it as transgressive realism. It finds a way to be both emotionally difficult to read and at the same time optimistic. While the content looks outrageous, it’s not far from reality. Readers can dismiss the idea of organ theft as shock tactics by a genre writer. But I would simply ask them to research and discover that organ trade in China is a billion dollar industry. The horrors of this book exist in the real world. What might seem noir for some is a reality for others. This dialog between the stories and the real world separate it from speculative entertainment and push the book into the category of literature.
The Soul Standard
Nik Korpon, Caleb J. Ross, Axel Taiari, and Richard Thomas
Dzanc Books, 2016