What I’m Reading Lately, Vol. 1:2

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:

How to Live Safe­ly in a Sci­ence Fic­tion­al Uni­verse, Charles Yu

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.