Justin David’s Kissing the Lizard is much what it describes the American West to be: an ‘alien landscape that seems to beat and breathe as if it is alive’. It’s a verbal hall of mirrors juxtaposing the urban density of SoHo with the desert of New Mexico, the gay culture of Old Compton Street with the new-age UFO-quackery of the American Southwest, the queer bildungsroman to the Hitchcockian slow burn. David’s prose is direct, his descriptions bare yet evocative, but the bluntness of his prose refracts more than reflects his story, like a hammer and chisel in rough hands carving a deceivingly intricate ice sculpture.
The story begins with the collective revelry of Old Compton Street on the eve of summer, but Jamie is ‘cut off… no closer to being part of it’. He’s a recent art school graduate and an aspiring novelist working a menial job, but when his money runs out he realises he must leave London to stay with his parents in the ‘arse end of nowhere’, far from the delightfully madding crowd.
While Jamie is chatting with his boyfriend, Billy, in the opening scene, Matthew is introduced. ‘His overall look is disco backpacker’ — he cleaves the conversation in two upon his arrival, engaging Jamie and silencing Billy. Even a two-timer like Billy knows this guy is trouble. Matthew is the personification of continual want exerted; a terrifically off-putting character, he continually demands and takes despite his avowed pretensions to minimalism. He lacks the tact and shining smile of a fairytale villain, but his oddball flavour gives him an insouciant charm. More than that, he has something Jamie is envious of: the self-assurance of the confident outsider.
Indeed the relationship between Jamie and Matthew is curious from the beginning. Jamie describes a “distance” between Billy and himself. However, Matthew oscillates between being manically attentive to Jamie and forcefully dismissive. When Matthew is angered, Jamie perceives the anatomy and tongue of a humanoid lizard; Matthew’s human skin, it seems, is but a membrane-thin disguise. Here David really shines. Lizard-people, the great bugbear of modern conspiracies, a trope manifoldly tied into new-age mythology, becomes both a reality and an allegory. How to read this development? Does Jamie really see this or is Matthew’s forked tongue a figurative manifestation of all snakes in the grass who would seduce innocents with their sweet words? Is David being literal or figurative?
The answer, of course, is yes.
At some point, the story ceases to be a tragedy of unknowing innocence and grows into something more unsettling: a comedy of knowing self-destruction. Like any player in a horror story, Jamie gets what he’s been asking for all along, or at least a glimpse of it. It isn’t until Prunella, the warm-hearted and charming quack who authored the book that draws Matthew to Jamie, shows him the means of initiating him into their ‘family’. It’s an unsettling device, ‘something like a dentist’s chair upholstered in white PVC’ that might have been the output of a joint design effort by Wilhelm Reich and Josef Mengele.
Something cracks in Jamie, there, upon witnessing the device that will deliver him from his own life and thereby free him of his troubling memories, traumas and incompleteness. Perhaps it is the lamb realising he is in the wolf’s den, or perhaps the lamb realising he has wandered self-consciously into it under the auspices of his own wilful misrecognition.
The webbing of illusion comes crashing down, yet it is an illusion Jamie has been staring squarely at. He resolves to leave, but is hindered mysteriously. Is Matthew able to manipulate reality to trap him or is this, as Prunella insists, Jamie manifesting the universe to give him what he truly wants?
He returns home to a verbal thrashing at the hands of his mother, Gloria, but all seems to be well. Or does it? ‘Stalagmites of candle wax’ in Matthew’s house seem to lurch forward in narrative time, referencing the cavernous American southwest, but so too does the new-age oasis of New Mexico spring forward, invading with menace Jamie’s tidy English environs. In David’s writing, place and time stubbornly refuse to stay put, making for a dreamy landscape of shifting psychology.
Matthew may be a lizard, but Gloria, violently hitting her nephew, acts like a crazed animal, the animal housed in the glass cage of civilisation. Perhaps that is what Jamie thinks he can escape. She brings Jamie to tears so she can bathe in his expiation. The relationship isn’t as parasitic as the one with Matthew, but at times it isn’t far off. Gloria takes over and sets the story to rest, ready to take a cruise on a ship called The Miracle of the Universe, which seems to recall exactly the new-age babble she has just spent two pages violently disavowing. Her fit of anger betrays a thwarted curiosity, the anxiety of desire.
David tells a touchingly twisted tale, a story with a spinning compass that won’t let you figure out where home is. Each reading of the story will generate new readings, new convictions about what this delicate ice sculpture really looks like. It does what great fiction ought to do, entrance and confound, elucidate and reveal.
Kissing the Lizard is a world unto itself. Perhaps the universe is talking to us after all.
4 April 2022