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'Shapes the Sunlight Takes'

 "Shapes the Sunlight Takes," (2015, Asymmetrical Press, 261 pages).

For Lexie, a 15-year-old high school freshman and perennial outsider, love truly is a delusion.

Her all-encompassing crush on a senior named Mirielle soon spirals into magic-realist visions of saving the world in "Shapes the Sunlight Takes," (2015, Asymmetrical Press, 261 pages), a coming-of-age novel by Missoula writer Josh Wagner.

Her hallucinations of pairing up the object of lust with an ex-boyfriend set in motion a series of events both comic (residents escape an old folks' home) and poetic (ruminations on the nature of heartbreak and growing up).

Wagner drew on some of his own experiences for the book, which is set in a fictionalized small town. It's never named, but has telltale signs of western Montana.

His family moved from Santa Cruz, California, to Hamilton when he was 11, and he developed "interests that didn't really line up with other people's," he said.

He adapted that outsider point of view for the narrative voice of Lexie.

She's a smart but socially awkward kid who cuts her own hair and produces electronic dance tracks when she's not hanging out with her best friend, Brooks.

She also pines for Mirielle at length and quite floridly.

Wagner incorporated his "personal experiences of my first love" for that sequence.

It often felt like a "prophetic vision," he said. But he carefully noted that Lexie's particular mental state – with Terry Gilliam-style hallucinations of a snow-globe of castle with a tongue taking over the world – are "a dramatization, for sure."

Those touches of magic realism aren't a new stylistic choice for Wagner.

Last year, he collaborated with Missoula artist Theo Ellsworth on "Mystery Mark," a short, looped play and accompanying illustrated novella about a man who's stalked by his childhood television hero.

Science fiction and fantasy, though, were Wagner's favored genre as a child – he began writing stories by age 6 and finished two novels by age 14.

His taste took a sharp turn into classic literature in college, but soon he discovered the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez and saw magic realism as a way to blend his interest in what's traditionally labeled as genre fiction and literature.

One of his biggest challenges in "Shapes" came from blending its fantastical elements with the comic ones.

The most significant voice, Lexie's, is often found ruminating on adolescence, as in this sequence about her changing interests:

"How many more selves will I become? Will I remember them sequentially, as a process, as a series of memories stacked on each other – like, this was me when I was really into soccer, or this was me when I got all nostalgic about the soccer-loving me that came before, or this was me trying to reconcile those two earlier selves?"

Wagner tested out some of these phrasings on Facebook to see whether they'd garner a reaction, such as this one:

"My personality is a collaboration frankensteined from tiny scraps of everyone I’ve ever loved."

The book's other major tone is lighthearted and funny – often employing the dry humor of young people precocious and not – and the novel sees frequent shifts back and forth.

"I had to come to terms with the fact that those are two very prevalent things that do alternate through life," he said.


Much of that comedy comes from characters peripheral to Lexie.

They include Donald Victoria Estringi, a veteran who was stationed in Berlin when the wall fell. Lexie, who was raised by a single mother, suspects he's her father and visits him frequently in a retirement community.

Donald's prone to outbursts and observations such as this one about proper places for a man to expire (as opposed to an old folks' home):

“A man should die in battle,” my father says. “Airlift me into the middle of a Central American revolution. I don’t care which one and I don’t care whose side I’m on. I’ll fight where I land.

"Fight until a bullet gets me. To hell with this sitting-around-waiting-for-the-end (expletive). I’ve had it! Complacency is the unforgivable sin of the soul.”

Other diversions come in the form of Lexie's first high school party – thrown out in the woods complete with a DJ – and a road trip to Portland, Oregon, for a rock-paper-scissors tournament.

Lexie also encounters the town's cool kids, an ever-looming and mythical group to high schoolers.

They call themselves the GSB – an acronym for an unprintable phrase – and perform light acts of eco-terrorism, mostly of the vandalism variety, when they're not getting high at their basement headquarters.

In the final third of the book, all these disparate characters and threads – Mirielle, Donald, the GSB, a cross-dressing grandfather and a sentient bear – are set on a collision course by Lexie's visions, which frequently lead her to question her own sanity along the way.

The double-down plot structure has become habit for Wagner.

"That's part of what makes the work fun for me," he said.

He first took note of the style in the 1990s British gangster film, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and thought that it was the "just the kind of storytelling I want to do."

The disparate characters "all converge so beautifully at the end."


Wagner's first published work was "The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe" in 1999. He's written numerous graphic novels and comics, such "Fiction Clemens."

He's also a co-founder of Viscosity Theatre, a Missoula company that produces original and experimental works.

Viscosity staged his plays "Salep & Silk" and "Ringing Out," and he co-wrote "ThisIllusionment."

Wagner wrote "Shapes" over the course of three years, including time spent finishing his MFA in creative writing at the University of Montana, during travels to Europe and some time in Flathead Valley.

"Shapes" was published by Asymmetrical Press, a nontraditional company founded by Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus and Colin Wright.

The former two write a blog under the name "The Minimalists," espousing a less materialist lifestyle.

Asymmetrical republished Wagner's previous novels, "Deadwind Sea," and "Smashing Laptops," in early 2014.

As with his previous books, Wagner is marking the release with a nontraditional party. On Saturday, he'll read some passages and then cede the stage for local rock bands.

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