Reading Steven Hall’s frankly amazing The Raw Shark Texts (once again, I am last to the party), I’m having my expectations banged about in the most pleasant way, and puts me in mind of other recent mindscrews I’ve experienced. You know the books I mean: the literary brain squeezes, the bookishly bizarre, the narrative nerdgasms, the alliteratively alienating.
Look, I likes me a linear plot in my challenging literature as much as anyone. Getting from A to B with a minimum of fuss? What a treat!
But sometimes, sometimes, it’s nice to take the road less traveled by.
That point made and quote stolen, it’s time for some quickie book reviews of some of my recent visits to the odd, examining the virtuoso insanity of authors who never met a narrative they couldn’t pretzel-twist into a Möbius strip of madness.
Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos, James Marshall
After the first entry in his How to End Human Suffering series Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies, I thought I was prepped for where James Marshall would take me. Nope. Rather than directly continuing with the unusual adventures of Guy Boy Man (an adventure I was looking forward to continuing), Marshall directs his attention to the zombies; more specifically, to Buck Burger, the most depressed zombie in history.
Being something of a self-professed expert in depressed zombies, it pains me to report that Buck has Sheldon Funk beaten in that department. He can’t see the point of continuing the zombie “life,” a life that consists of work (which is basically the causing of random destruction, don’t ask me how this economy functions) and shopping for humans at the grocery store (preferably free-range). Buck only feels “alive” when with Fairy_29, a green-haired fairy who has taken an unlikely liking to the poor dead soul.
Aside from the weirdly sweet relationship, ZVFFA is an often gruesome (oh, hell, even the relationship is gruesome) satire of losing your way in the universe and trying to fight your way back, as well as a highly enjoyable take on consumerism and the social contract. Marshall keeps the antics lively, but there is a serious message at the core. It’s a bitter pill; luckily, it’s enveloped in madcap supernatural hijinks. It’s a mindjob of a novel, and I’m eager for more. But read NVPFZ first, it’ll help.
Next up, the brain-twisting dilemmas of time travel as told in:
Charles Yu (both author and protagonist, which automatically hoists the novel into the metasphere) is a time machine mechanic. He lives within his TM-31 time machine with his non-existent dog Ed and his depressed computer TAMMY, travelling through Minor Universe 31 fixing the time machines of people who try to fix the past. When he leaves the machine, he visits his mother who lives in a permanent time loop of one hour of her life.
So far, so weird, so amazing, but Yu then goes full-on meta-crazy. Yu the protagonist is searching for his father (possibly the inventor of time travel) when he accidentally shoots his future self, thus forcing Yu onto a timeline he cannot escape. There is also the little matter of the book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a book Yu has been writing about his life, although it has already been written by himself, and he has a copy.
It’s all a bit bewildering, but in the best possible sense. The best way to think of what happens next is to recall Dave Bowman’s ultimate fate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, trapped in a loop of his own existence, watching himself age into infirmity. This is not what happens in How to Live…, but the overall disorientation Yu creates through his text is strikingly similar. Rather than fight it, just let yourself go and float along.
Yet while the plot zigs and zags and rabbit punches your medulla with mathematical constructs and terms such as “Weinberg-Takayama Radius,” at the centre there is a very lonely story of one boy’s longing to reconnect with his father, and a very human search for the self. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is brainy, complex, utterly ridiculous, intellectually demanding, very funny, and wholly remarkable.
And finally in our cavalcade of intentional headaches:
Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, Paul Tremblay
I’m finding the hardest part of these mini-reviews is summarizing the unsummarizable, and Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye is the most difficult. But here goes.
Employee 42–9-33LB-A is in indentured servitude to Farm, City’s main source of food. When his mother disappears, he fears she is homeless and possibly deported under City to the Pier. Fleeing his job, he encounters eco-terrorists in animal suits, City’s insane Mayor, and a priest with ESP (or not) who happens to be his father. He’s also going to run for Mayor.
Yeah, that’s about it. Or not. There’s a helluva lot more, really, but that’s basic framework Tremblay lays out for himself to play in. And play he does, in a satire of our world as black as they come. This is dystopic world-building of the strangest sort, a world six centimetres and five minutes away from our own. It’s a world of menial labour for faceless corporations, of a destitute people living at the whim of insane billionaires. So, yeah, it’s our world.
You could call Tremblay’s novel the Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four for a new generation, but that would be easy, and not quite right. Like our other two entries, there’s a great deal of surface enjoyment here, just enjoying the ride, but Tremblay continually digs to find hidden deposits of emotion beneath the crazy, usually in reference to the nameless narrator’s childhood. There’s a lot of Orwell scattered about, yes, but Aldous Huxley and Douglas Adams are definitely present in spirit, resulting in a delightfully neurotic search for self and humanity in a universe that couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether you live or die.
And there you have it, three novels that should have you scratching your head into the wee hours of the morn. You’re welcome.