VSAmilla Grudova’s debut, The Doll’s Alphabet collection of short fiction films, has been acclaimed as feminist horror reminiscent of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. In 13 often grotesque and jarring stories, Grudova constructed miniature scenarios to explore the disappointments of young women’s lives: dystopian worlds strewn with double meanings and symbolic objects such as inscrutable dolls, mannequin parts and machines. to sew. With slyly rococo titles like Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead and The Moth Emporium, it was as if surrealist artist Leonora Carrington had embarked on a collaboration with David Lynch.
Grudova’s themes of identity and isolation are continued on a grander scale in her first novel, which is set in an old movie theater called Paradise. It’s “a freak Frankenstein place”, with a trapdoor nonchalantly opening onto a river of raw sewage below, and a mysterious red projection room that occasionally manifests in hallucinatory fashion, and which no one who enters does not come out. Along with its cue title, the novel is also a dark reflection of Marcel Carné’s classic 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis, and similarly features a cast of misfits, though Grudova clarifies from the bizarre and often sadomasochistic interactions of its characters that Carné’s vision of an epic doomed romance really isn’t there.
The novel’s narrator, a young woman in search of comfort and reinvention, plays – like everyone else in Paradise – a role. She enters the theater on a whim after noticing a “We’re Hiring” sign on the front doors. “I had just arrived in town, and in the country, by train, and I badly needed a job.” She continues: “I will be called Holly, after the girl from Badlands.
Holly is hired for a low-paying shift job by Sally, a middle-aged former beauty queen who is the manager of Paradise. She learns to know the failings of the place, its particular rituals and its changing complicities. She learns to deal with Iris, an elderly regular who turns out to be the real owner of the ruined picture house. Holly stamps tickets, cleans dirty toilets, tries to control the crazy antics of the old popcorn machine and is, at first, carefully ignored by her similarly dressed black co-workers, who all socialize and live together in various sordid studios. Once she is allowed into their circle, an intense, competitive bond forms of bizarre loneliness and obsession with the otherworld of cinema, entwined with the mutual hostility familiar to helpless employees. Holly has found her tribe and she calls their close-knit circle “orphans” more than once.
Cinema workers have limited means to protest against low wages and monotonous hours, but they lay claim to an anarchic and carnivalesque existence. Overworked shadows with meager aspirations, they watch the glamor and drama unfold before them on the big screen. They snort leftover drugs left in Paradise’s bathrooms, down dodgy cocktails mixed from the bar’s expired dusty bottles, and sneak into the building after hours for all-night screenings, drunk or stoned or a mixture of the two. Holly falls into a manic, dysfunctional sexual affair with fellow bailiff Paolo. En masse, the staff acts with a brooding resentment towards Paradise patrons, an unnatural assortment of characters who “were a necessary evil…so that we true devotees could have access to the screen, our giant monument and divine”.
Faithful to this ardent cult of the imagination, each of the short chapters of the book bears the name of a film, starting with John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Some of the movie titles relate to the content of the chapters, others are more elliptical. At the point where the novel threatens to sink under the weight of wacky sketches, Grudova introduces a desperate (and necessary) turn in the plot. The cinema is sold to a faceless giant corporation and a Gradgrindian system of micro-management is imposed. For Holly and the others, who take off one by one through a series of sometimes deadly incidents, the work becomes cumbersome and unpleasantly unstable. And for the reader, reality and fantasy, which have constantly overlapped, begin to merge completely, like a merry-go-round that goes horribly wrong.
Grudova, who is Canadian, has, according to her author biography, worked as an usher at an Edinburgh cinema – hopefully not one with so many casualties among staff and customers. The novel is located nowhere in particular, which emphasizes its otherworldly atmosphere. Yet despite its fancy surface, Grudova created a beautifully piquant commentary on the damaging nature of work hierarchies and zero-hour contracts. There is an eerie, tortured beauty in Children of Paradise, a cruelly deliberate irony in the creation of characters who have no hope of achieving the rapture promised by the book’s title, instead going through a state of purgatory.