Out of Scope

by Drew Castalia

Political romance

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IFComp 2023: Out of Scope, November 9, 2023
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

By the time an old servant slash formerly the imperial admiral patriarch’s mistress slash secret agent from some fractious Balkan manipulates an empire and its dissident into a war that culminates in a sniper duel between supersoldier aristocrat siblings who are potentially lovers in their crumbling mansion over a feud that consists as much of domestic relations as it does international relations, not much lies out of scope. At its core, Out of Scope wants to tell a suffocating story about how two siblings are torn apart by the different social expectations of gender, but in its attempt to amp the tension to world historical importance, it loses its message somewhere in its reams of political exposition.

With its guns blazing stagesetter, Out of Scope charges no holds barred to flourish a first impression with moody grandeur prose, where the “ceiling rises precipitously, all the way to the soffit of the second floor, letting in a huge amount of light and spiders” to narrow corridors haunted by “Statues. Family members, genuine and appropriated. All stained by a slightly ironic shade of soot.” The rich imagery glimmers in stained glass moonlight to echo through the space a moody nocturne, elegantly composing into phantasmagorical allure with its sudden piu forte into violence: “Bubbles in the glass pane swim before the scene … Seaweed rustles on the hillside and froth floats in the sky. / A gleam of treasure winks at you from a shipwreck … Her eyes are on you … You feel the collision in your memories, then in the constriction of your heart, then going through your side as the window shatters against you and you plunge down against its thick, gouging shards.” Although sometimes the opulence inelegances into the gaudiness of trying too hard, like when “You approach, unsteadily on the igneous plane”, the writing still crackles when the moody veneer is asserted selfsufficient.

But then the story balloons expository, bloating to explain who the Colibrians are and what treaties they’ve made and not upheld, thus this sharpness disappears into somewhat wooden banter, with aristocrats hmmph hmming how you might think they would, with soldiers more concerned with who hazes who than whether the war engulfs them, with your various relations being bores. To accompany this broadening, the cast of characters also widens, most of whom are hastily sketched in with broad strokes: “Uncle Graham, or Great Ham, as you call him, is inevitably at the long dining table, his mouth ingesting from a plate and his ears from the inexhaustible anecdote of Lavinia … Grandfather is accepting tribute from a fug of officers, while Aunt Marion, or Marry On, as you call her, is pointedly ignoring it all”. This flatness saps your investment in any of their subsequent shenanigans, and although there are attempts to provide twists, Aunt Marion is revealed as a skilled sculptor of previous lovers, none of these twists really broaden their remit beyond the eyeroll by which they are initially invoked.

Rather than complexifying the family dynamics through a wider canvas, the intermixing of the political with the personal proves artificial, rendering the latter vague through the interventions of the former. Take this dry bit of banter after Zoe’s mother, the editor of a national newspaper, approves of Zoe’s boyfriend: “”You’re the kingmaker,” you say, citing her nickname in this morning’s edition of Clarion Call, ostensibly in reference to your father’s conquests.” Turbulent emotions between family members loses intimate intensity when printed in the morning paper. Similarly, the supersoldier intrigue between the siblings simply dilutes their conflicted immediacy, as when a heated emotional exchange causes Zoe to remember her “psyops training” before responding. Naturlich, any successful family gathering requires a certain amount of psyops. Most frustratingly, the critical brother sister bond at the heart of Out of Scope zooms out too abstract as its spy thriller inclinations take over, leaving us with salacious descriptions of soldiery rather than their initial impactful solidarity. In the few breaths the story spares for the pair unimpacted by national security, we get more telling than showing, gesturing airily at letters rather than the roiling writings within, which is a shame, because perhaps some of its strongest sparkles exist in their tempestuous multifacets: “Remorse and the thrill of your own power electrifies you, and then together you burst into tears.” There’s a section in the sprawling labyrinths of the unfinished The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil where Ulrich and his sister Agathe dialogue into a heady and equally unsettling intimacy, and some echo of that would I think massively improve the reader’s engagement in the central themes of this work.

When it adheres to its fastest flowing currents, Out of Scope compels, especially with its excellently imperial diffidence to the moral difficulty of much of its subject matter, which allows its complications space to breathe. Indeed, there is a strong attention to preserving point of view, like a great line that translates its scenic lyricisms into a child’s voice with “fireflies playing freeze tag”. But the clean shot this style could take through the story blurs, and we get waylaid by brambling bumbles that add no hues to the bloom. Even the story’s presentation, a spatially exacting Prezi, overthinks the premise, adding little beyond Twine beyond dizzying clicksickness. The author displays much promise, but in this iteration, alas, the wayward breezes stray us from the target.

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