Trina Goldberg-Oneka is a fifty-year-old trans woman whose life is irreversibly altered in the wake of a gentle—but nonetheless world-changing—invasion by an alien entity called The Seep. Through The Seep, everything is connected. Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.
Trina and her wife, Deeba, live blissfully under The Seep’s utopian influence—until Deeba begins to imagine what it might be like to be reborn as a baby, which will give her the chance at an even better life. Using Seeptech to make this dream a reality, Deeba moves on to a new existence, leaving Trina devastated.
Heartbroken and deep into an alcoholic binge, Trina follows a lost boy she encounters, embarking on an unexpected quest. In her attempt to save him from The Seep, she will confront not only one of its most avid devotees, but the terrifying void that Deeba has left behind. A strange new elegy of love and loss, The Seep explores grief, alienation, and the ache of moving on.
The novel’s title, I think, is a perfect nod at the tale within: a story that, for the space of a few pages, fills the room like water, seeping into every corner, fluid enough to make its way into the minds and hearts of its readers through all sorts of different angles.
Imagine that it were possible to take one step out of reality, into a place of pure pleasure, far from the familiar tin-can clatter of today’s misery. A place where hierarchies are picked apart, capitalism is collapsed, people can flow into different shapes, and time no longer feels like currency, each moment a coin that could be, if one wasn’t careful, wasted and lost—because immortality is attainable at last. All thanks to The Seep, a symbiotic alien entity that glows in the mind of the world.
Chana Porter’s astonishingly gripping novel, “The Seep”, takes place in that dimension. And Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, the novel’s protagonist—a fifty-year-old Native American trans woman—cannot escape the feeling that, below the surface, something is breaking.
When Trina’s wife, Deeba, decides to recreate into a baby, and let the Seep erase everything—replacing the remnants of her traumatic past with smooth oblivion—Trina refuses to take on the role of being a mother to Deeba, and their necessary split erases the miraculous circle the Seep had drawn around them like a shoe smudging away a chalk line. Half-mad with her own circling, heartsick with the sameness of her days, Trina decides to embark on “a vengeful quest” to tear this new world down and rebuild it in a way that made sense.
Trina’s quest, it turns out, is the artifice through which Porter embarks on a philosophical and existential journey—pondering mortality and decay, humankind and change, with a soul-baring poignancy.
The Seep runs through the lives of everyone Trina knows—including her own—like underground streams. Trina had hoped that, as the years passed, something would shift in her, like clockwork into motion, and that she would finally be able to bend her mind around it. But the further her journey takes her, the more Trina longs for an escape hatch in this new reality.
One of the most intriguing questions “The Seep” ruminates on is the fraught tension existing between difference and conflict, and the ramifications of collapsing the formal to avoid the latter. When The Seep descended to Earth, it sought to erase all pain, fear and disaccord, in the benevolent but misguided belief that to give human dissimilarities a wave of the hand—as if distractedly swatting a fly—is the answer. But our differences, it turns out, cannot be unraveled as though they were a ball of yarn. Culture, history, experience, memory—these things shape every single one of us in ways that are unique and very particular. They are part of the rope bridge linking us to the world at large. When Trina’s white friend, Horizon Line, refuses to recognize that stealing his dead boyfriend’s brown face and sculpting it onto his own like living clay is a species of violence far worse than anything she could imagine, Horizon Line argues that “our bodies are just containers for our immortal essences”, but Trina is a queer woman who has transitioned well before The Seep’s arrival, and there was far too deep a history written over her body to simply give it up. In one of the novel’s most cutting and affecting scenes—showing how the Seep’s love for humans has distorted, sharpened and pinned them to a wall instead—Trina rages that she “had labored for [her] body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut.”
These are all difficult considerations, upon which the pen of the contriver may well like to dwell. A less skilled author might have produced an overbearingly didactic text in the hope of exploring them, but Porter succeeds with brilliance and verve, framing these questions with chilling clarity but offering no clear answers or pat explanations. A little suggestion goes a long way, and the result is frankly quite riveting.
At the core of the novel is also grief, and the pages are weighted with it, heavy like lead. In unguarded moments, Trina’s grief, aching and bright, strikes through in such mutinous bursts. Trina and Deeba were close and inseparable, like stones mortared together. Deeba’s absence bore down on Trina’s heart like a stone. The days were like a rope mooring her to despair, and the understanding that her wife is gone feels like a thumb pressed to her throat. Still, Trina would not give up her pain for anything. And when The Seep insists to erase her memories of her wife, hoping to grant Trina reprieve from her sorrow, Trina responds: “It’s my pain! Let me have it.” That the author could make Trina’s sorrow so palpable, and in less than 200 page, is quite a remarkable feat.
If there’s a criticism to be made is that—while the book’s brevity and economy work splendidly for the most part—there are many threads at play in “The Seep”, most of which don’t mesh as resonantly as they could, with many loose ends left dangling in the wind that could have been more neatly tied up. But these are minor notes in an otherwise really good story that I thoroughly enjoyed.