Tentacle by Rita Indiana review – a post-apocalyptic odyssey

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From race and gender to queer politics and ecological disaster: huge themes are tackled in a slender Dominican dystopia that spans three time frames with dizzying results.

A review by Suzi Feay for London’s Guardian.

Don’t be deceived by the slender proportions of this novel from the Dominican musician and author Rita Indiana. Tentacle shapeshifts dizzyingly around three time spans and a loosely connected group of characters, and takes on huge themes, including race and gender, the impact of tourism, apocalyptic events and ecological disaster.

Set in the future, the opening section features a maid called Acilde Figueroa, working for an elderly voodoo priestess with links to the tyrannical president. Acilde is saving up for Rainbow Brite, a one-injection gender reassignment operation; boyish and slender, she has been masquerading as an underage rent boy, until Eric, one of her tricks, comes up with a plan to fast-track her masculinity project. The seas around the island are a lifeless soup due to a nuclear catastrophe directly attributable to the president, and Eric has learned through his contact with the spirit world that he must nurture the Chosen One on behalf of the primordial sea-god Olokun. It will be their job to travel back into the past and persuade the president not to commit his act of nuclear folly. 

A dry, sardonic tone anchors the pulpy narrative, with its bloody violence, brutish sex and futuristic flourishes, all seasoned with bitter humour and a hint of the occult. The second time frame, roughly approximating our own era, focuses on pretentious art students dreaming up performance pieces. The third, set in the Spanish Main, introduces a group of sinister, quarrelling pirates.

Among the art students is the revolting Argenis, lost in lewd and misogynistic fantasies about his patron’s wife, an ecologist committed to preserving the island’s coral and sea life. Argenis, manipulated by Acilde’s superpowers, finds himself living a double existence, on the one hand partying and painting, on the other skinning hides to trade for gold in a distant century. Indiana pulls these strands together ingeniously.

Just as the pirates form an opportunistic and easily sundered fraternity, so the artists are ultimately self-serving and ruthless. The pirates, you could say, are simply more honest about it. Whether we would really want to change the past, given the opportunity, is one question posed in this blast of a novel; what it is to act beyond self-interest is another. Tentacle reads like Kathy Acker with a tighter narrative grip.

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