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The Resurrectionist, by Jack O'Connell, Algonquin Books, 2008, $24.95.
Other Voices, by Andrew Humphrey, Elastic Press (U.K.), 2008, £5.99.
WE OLD guys, I find, tend to spend a lot of time talking about tradition. Recently Joe Lansdale and I were in Italy together for a week, trodding along down the narrow streets of Piacenza comparing notes on how so many of the early great writers, people like Kornbluth and Kuttner, never got their due. We talked a lot, too, about how science fiction has shaped the way we see the world.
Jack O'Connell's another with a profound respect for older writers, along with an interest in their lives, their work, the wellsprings of their creativity. We're talking insatiable curiosity here, question after question, photocopies of correspondence or of articles from obscure magazines, boxes of musty paperbacks in the attic. What was it like, O'Connell always wants to know, writing pulp, being part of that world—or of the New Wave in the sixties? Want to talk about some fairly obscure writer, say Gil Brewer? Better make a pot of coffee, then, 'cause you'll be there for hours.
O'Connell's first novel, Box Nine, centers around a designer drug named Lingo that speeds up language and perception to such full tilt that the world about one begins to dissolve. Wireless jump-starts with the murder of an activist priest and gets into gear with renegade federal agents, ballroom-champion midgets, and pirate-like radio jammers whose complex subculture both reflects and ridicules the decayed American dream. Built about a quest for suppressed movie footage, The Skin Palace tracks an artist's descent into an underbelly world of half-mad geniuses, new-world messiahs, and blind pornographers. Word Made Flesh (reviewed here upon publication) offers up, in the writer's own words, "a grotesque romance about genocide, language, doubt, obsession, worms, epidermis, and sanctuary." See the entire population of Maisel wiped out by a huge tree shredder! See child artists kept in veal pens and forced to produce graphic novels! See the second annual immigrant death match!
And now, fellow travelers, we have The Resurrectionist, the latest (five years in the making!) of Jack O'Connell's trademark amalgam of the shabbiest and most puissant elements from science fiction, crime novels, westerns, horror tales, thrillers. The setting, again, is Quinsigamond, a city constructed of the world's crawlspaces and alleyways and populated by humankind's leftovers.
American genre fiction, American fiction as a whole, in fact, has more in common with the romance than with the novel proper, the latter concerned with the individual in society, the former more often with the individual set against society. And because of this, even in conservative writers, even with the machineries of genre expression grinding predictably away, quite often something wild, something nihilistic and untamable, keeps breaking onto the page. It is this that Jack O'Connell so treasures, I think, in his admiration of pulp and early genre writers. And it is certainly what he's forever reaching for in his own work.
In The Skin Palace, filmmaker Hugo Schick wants "the very synapses of the human brain to be accessible as my own editing board, the ultimate Moviola.… More images, faster images, all the time,… And, finally, I want a way of editing any and all of this goulash together—life image, dream image, movie image.…"
Which sounds a lot like O'Connell's working method.
In The Resurrectionist we begin reading the story of a child in a coma and the pharmacist father who has taken a job with the progressive, if unorthodox, clinic that will be assuming his son's care. It's a spooky enough place, and the father's initial encounters with staff are, well, a bit off.
That's chapter one. Then suddenly in chapter two we've fallen through cracks into the tale of a troop of circus freaks.
"They came from the city of Maisel in the heart of Old Bohemia, land of pogroms and demonology. They became a family in the most binding way of all, through a shared and pitiless suffering. […] What does it mean to be a freak? For the Goldfaden Freaks it meant, for a time, a brief period in the beginning, that they were stars."Soon thereafter comes a character named Spider and—ready for it?—the biker gang to which he belongs.
"Run by Buzz Cote, a burly veteran of the crank wars, the Abominations were classic renegades. Unaffiliated and proud of it, they swooped into towns like a plague, announcing their presence but never their agenda. Coming to Quinsigamond out of Phoenix, they found their way to the Harmony as if it were the ancestral home. […] With any luck they'd be pulling out of the city in another week or two but Buzz knew, from experience, you don't rely on luck."So he's about to send the boys out on a little joyride.
People in comas, families at ragged ends. A scientist with unbridled ambition. Dark, forbidding clinic. Fatos the mule-faced boy, Aziz the human torso, Nadja the lobster girl, Durga the fat lady, Jeta the skeleton, Milena the hermaphrodite, Antoinette the pinhead, Marcel and Vasco the Siamese twins, Kitty the dwarf, and Chick the chicken boy all wandering about doing their best to survive in whatever world it is that they inhabit. And a gang of bikers with mysterious agendas led by Buzz and—as in time we discover—a nurse who works at the clinic.
All this, yet we never get more than a step or two away from the heart of the story, which is about a father's loss and knowingly hopeless love for the son who once loved to read the Limbo Comics from which the tale of the freaks is taken.
The Resurrectionist is a brilliant, wild, heartfelt novel. It seems, like all of O'Connell's work, at once to bear tribute to its predecessors and to come out of nowhere, a stew whose various lumps, gristles, fillers, and spices have long since cooked down to a single, amazing richness.
O'Connell's books are one of a kind—again and again. From its very inception science fiction has been blessed with an extraordinary wealth of great original talents. Jack O'Connell is, with Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, and a handful of others working today, securely among them.
Dreams, great novels, dialogue with those we love, the way we live our lives: it's all about stories.
And I find myself remembering those conversations with Joe, how science fiction has framed the way we think, the very way we see our world.
As mentioned in my last column, this magazine in the fifties became a vanguard for the blending of the details of mundane, everyday life with fantasy. When Jack O'Connell works to make his fantasy worlds more real than the one encompassing you as you read, he honors and extends that tradition.
Andrew Humphrey does something similar. Several of the thirteen stories in Other Voices are not science fiction, others have minor though seminal arealist elements, but all are informed, as are Joe's and mine, by a particular bend in the light, by a sense of estrangement—of looking on from afar—that seems basically a science-fictional perspective.
Here is a man whose wild talent is taking away grief, and who coldly goes about making a living from it:
"Then she became soft, pliant, folded against him. And he felt the usual slow warmth and tasted something dark and bitter at the back of his throat. She murmured, 'My God, my God,' into his chest and he held her, stroked the top of her head, and felt something tender, something close to love. Even though he charged for this and although he didn't actually give a shit, Carter was suddenly imbued with a tainted, accidental sense of virtue."He stands there, a hundred and fifty euros richer, tainted with virtue, amidst a city in chaos, in a future U.K. come apart at every seam and perhaps all the more affecting for its being so sparely adumbrated.
In stories with little or no fantastic element, much the same sensibility manifests. Troughton in the title story can feel time distort and fold in on itself, catching him in its creases. So haunted is he by his alcoholic father that, though a professed non-drinker, he stinks of booze and by midmorning runs with sweat, "swollen, amber colored drops, they'd ooze between the hairs of his arms and smell and taste of whiskey." Like many of Humphrey's characters, he is in a dissolved or dissolving relationship that seems to be cascading out to take down the whole of his world with it.
In this and in other stories we can never quite discern (as the characters cannot) what is real, what imagined. In "Dogfight," Spitfires and Messerschmitts hammer at one another above the heads of an estranged father and son, mirroring dogfights in which the father's abusive grandfather may have participated, or which he may have made up. Are the planes real? Imagined?
"The howl of the engine became a scream. The horizon was all Messerschmitt. When it was almost on us I said, 'It can't hurt us, Danny.'In "Three Days" an abducted girl returns home. The parents have no notion where she has been. Has she in fact returned? Has she undergone some mysterious transformation? Or has she, or her memory, somehow become for them an avatar of things not changing?
"Ginny feels warm and smells of vanilla. She always smells of vanilla. Her weight always feels exactly the same on my lap, too, has for months and months. I squeeze her waist and she turns towards me. I do the usual check: hair, teeth, nails. None have grown since the day she disappeared. Which is odd, I suppose, but Beth and I don't mention it."Then, just when you think you may be on firm realist ground, or at least have the shore firmly in sight, Humphrey throws a curveball like "Mimic," a perfect little science fiction fable playing off the changes of such as Budrys's Who? and Campbell's "Who Goes There?"
"The man who could be my identical twin sits on the edge of a metal-framed bed in an isolation cell that's deep in the recesses of a secret bunker, which itself is buried beneath an abandoned Second World War airfield, somewhere in Norfolk."My personal favorite here has to be "Think of a Number," a nice little tale of the child whose father pimped him out to pedophiles then dumped him when he became too old, and of the recovering pedophile, an assassin, who takes him on as ward and apprentice. This is a story that, even on fourth reading, I find at once profoundly disturbing yet reassuring, a story for which my admiration is boundless: its quiet refusal to be, from line to line and sentence to sentence, what we expect; the uneasiness it creates without bending towards the sensational or sentimental; our unwitting identification with the characters; the story's restraint and many silences; the simple reach of it.
Humphrey has published a previous collection, Open the Box, and, more or less simultaneously with Other Voices, a novel, Allison. Neither of these, like Other Voices, appears to have been published or to be easily available in the U.S. Both will shortly be here on my shelves.
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