Francesca Lia Block writes strange but intoxicating tales; stories that are surreal and yet oddly comforting. To classify her books are nearly impossible. The format is that of fairytales, in which her protagonists face a series of challenges, and learn a valuable life lesson by book’s end. Yet her genre is that of magic realism, in which she fills the city of Los Angeles (and in one case, New York) with all sorts of weird and wonderful occurrences, such as wishes granted by genies, conversations with ghosts, and spiritual power derived from Native American artifacts, plot threads that are interwoven with more “mundane” issues such as burgeoning sexuality, substance abuse and dysfunctional families. Her style is something else altogether, and it’s really not something I can even begin to describe. It has to speak for itself…but I guess it’s kind of like looking through a kaleidoscope whilst eating pink cotton candy and listening to psychedelic music.
Dangerous Angels is an anthology of stories made up of what is also known as the Weetzie Bat Books (a bit of a misnomer, as Weetzie is the protagonist of only the first story; various friends and family members provide the focal point of the rest). First published in sequence as a series of five novellas, each story pertains to a member of a very strange family as they grow to maturity, learn truths about themselves, discover the world around them and obtain personal strength. In its most basic form, there’s very little in that formula that won’t resonate on some level with readers. The controversy seems to come from either the subject matter, or the unusual form of style.
Block isn’t queasy about dealing with topics such as homosexuality, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy, and she’s not going to apologize for it either! At times, even I’ll admit that things seem to go somewhat overboard (Weetzie Bat wants a child, so she talks her two gay friends into a threesome; weird enough, but it follows on that there are no real consequences to her actions: she apparently makes a great mother, and the child has no problems with her unorthodox life), but despite the seemingly irresponsible manner in which Block tackles these issues, a major theme overrides all the difficult subject matter: that love, acceptance and the freedom to tell one’s personal story is a great healing force no matter what stupid decisions we make, painful experiences we go through, or unchangeable circumstances we are born to.
Yet even this message isn’t sugar-coated. Love is also a “dangerous angel,” that in many instances can harm as much as heal a person. There are no clear answers here. Just as life isn’t easy, neither is this book. Of course, all this may put several parents and censors up in arms, but I don’t think there’s anything majorly offensive or dangerous about these stories (it must be said that the non-explicit threesome is far and away the most extreme moment in all five stories). I’ve never understood the logic that teenagers are going to rush out and try similar things just because they’ve read about them in books, or emulate characters that are clearly fictional, but some adults may be uncomfortable with the subject matter, and therefore wish to monitor the reading process. However, it’s worthy saying that “Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys,” is ultimately all about cautioning youngsters about not growing up before their time.
The tales begin with “Weetzie Bat”, a young teenager on the lookout for true love. She loves each of her (divorced) parents, her gay best friend Dirk and his grandmother Fifi, but secretly longs for what she calls her “Secret Agent Lover Man.” Then one day, when polishing an old lamp, a genie appears and grants her three wishes: “I wish for a Duck for Dirk, and my Secret Agent Lover Man for me, and a beautiful little house for us to live in happily ever after.” Her wishes come true of course, but the “happily ever after” part needs a bit of work.
“Witch Baby” concerns one of two children that are born to the rather odd little Bohemian family in the Hollywood hills. Feeling as though she doesn’t fit in with the likes of Weetzie Bat, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk and Duck, and her “sister” Cherokee Bat, she neglects personal hygiene, sneaks about taking candid pictures, and becomes a stowaway on a trip to Duck’s house that’s designed to break the news of his relationship with Dirk to his mother. This is the story of the awkward, slightly bratty, black sheep in the family, and the quest for belonging and acceptance.
What follows is probably the most fairytale-esque of all five stories. “Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys,” tells of the second generation’s attempts to negotiate the first steps toward adulthood. Forming a band called the Goat Guys, Cherokee, Witch Baby and their boyfriends Raphael and Angel Juan find themselves without parental supervision for the first time, and make the most of it! But in the attempt to boost the confidence of her fellow band members, Cherokee taps into a powerful magic when she crafts elaborate costumes for them, only to gradually realize that none of them are mature enough to handle it properly.
“Missing Angel Juan,” returns to Witch Baby as the protagonist, but this time as a first-person narrator. After Angel Juan breaks up with her, she follows him in despair to New York in the attempt to track him down again. Meeting up with the ghost of her ‘almost-grandfather’ Charlie Bat, Witch Baby searches for Angel Juan whilst struggling with her heartbreak and the personification of her fears.
Finally, “Baby Be-Bop” works as a prequel of sorts, detailing the youth of Dirk and his desperate attempt to hide his homosexuality from the world. It is a fitting conclusion to the series, drawing back to similar themes and images throughout the series, as well as exploring mysteries like the genie in the lamp and the past of Grandma Fifi. It ends on a note that is true of the entire series, as well as life itself: “Our stories can set us free, if we set them free.” Hmm, it looks rather corny out-of-context, but when seen as the final tribute of the lives and trials of these characters, it is immensely rewarding.
The language Francesca Lia Block uses to present these stories is (in my opinion) hypnotic. Although the teenagers’ own slang, such as “slinkster-cool”, or “clutch pigs,” may come across as a bit dated, it’s in the visceral sensations of sight, sound, and smell that Block really excels.
“An amusement park in winter is like when you go to the places where you went with the person you love but they’re not with you any more. Everything rickety and cold and empty. If you had cotton candy it would burn your lips and cut your throat like spun pink glass.”
“In the evening Derwood came calling with honey from his bees. It tasted like nothing less than nectar made for the love of a golden queen by a hundred droning drones. We slathered it on homemade bread, drizzled it over rice pudding, let big shining drops fall into our teacups…”
“This kiss was like a wind from the desert, a wind that knocks over candles so that flowers catch fire, a wind, or a like a sunset in the desert casting sphinx shadows on the sand, a sunset, or like a shivering in the spine of the earth.”
This is just a small taste. The prose is made up of these wild, almost-manic lines of thought, like teenagers scribbling erratically in their diaries in the attempt to capture what’s in their minds. All you can do is let yourself get caught up in it, Block’s worlds where reality is skewered, life is both beauty and pain, and every page turn holds a surprise. And yet it is grounded in the humanity of characters, and the reoccurring motif of a globe-shaped lamp, which provides the basis of many epiphanies. Needless to say, it’s impossible to recommend or dismiss this book objectively, simply because a reader will either love or hate these books. It’s enough to say that there is very little like it out there in the YA reading market, and whereas some will embrace the weird and wonderful, others will be turned off by the content matter or whimsical styling. There’s really only one way to find out what group you’re in, and that’s to pick up Dangerous Angels and try it out for yourself.