If there was one thing that Hunter Thompson demonstrated through his writing and his antics, and we writers can take especial note, is that we are forever haunted by four ghosts, ‘patron haints’ if I may be allowed to coin a phrase: the Buddha, David Hume, Heraclitus, and Werner Heisenberg. I bring this up because recent events in my personal blogosphere have shown me just how small a world it is, and with some thoughts on interdependence, I realized I wanted to make things go ahead correctly.
One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot people review their friends’ work with a less than critical eye. While that’s great, it’s nice to buoy your friends up a bit with praise, I think it does them a bit of disservice. I’ve seen reviews that are little more than a regurgitation of the jacket copy. Why bother putting that kind of review up? I’ve determined that I’m not going to do that. So disclosure time: I’ll be reviewing “Murderland Part 1:h8” by Garrett Cook. He’s a friend from afar- hopefully moving to PDX soon, and I hope I helped him with that a bit. We’re also having our series of books come out from the same publisher, Evil Nerd Empire. What’s the word for that? ‘Labelmates’ sounds more rock ‘n roll, so I guess that works.
‘Murderland,’ in brief, is the story of Jeremy Jenkins, a mild-mannered pharmacist whose cover story of being a moralizing nebbish hides that he is in fact a vigilante killing the popularly-sanctioned serial killers of his day, but also one himself, targeting scores of young blondes who he believes to be the hosts of an invisible techno-chthonic menace that only he can see. It is here in Jeremy’s insanity that he joins the ranks of other wonderful unreliable narrators such as Severian or Patrick Bateman: is Jeremy really a golden Adonis as he sees himself? Is there truly a Nanite invasion, or just a sick justification? A split personality also crops up as the assassin part of Jeremy’s mind, and this personality is so effortlessly charming that it made me wish, as I did about William Hurt’s apparition in ‘Mr. Brooks’, that it would get a lot more face time with the reader.
“You kill like a girl. Pills, Jeremy? God, pills? I’m starting to feel that my faith in you is quite misplaced. I need a Cuchulain and I get a Borgia.”
My one complaint about this bit, and quite a backhanded one at that, is that Cook’s voice in this novel is so strong, especially for a debut novel, that the transitions between the main character and his ‘secret sharer’ were a little too well-done. That same narrative voice makes this a wonderfully strong read, and very brisk- I read it over lunch and break at work and barely noticed when suddenly the book was over, and had to do a bit of a double-take. I’d read some comments about the futuristic or experimental language of the book, but did not see much of evidence of that. The running patter in Jeremy’s head allows a graceful buildup to a nice piece of classic thriller-type climax: conveyed by Murderland’s top murder afficionado, both reader and Jeremy realize the true magnitude of his violence and its impact on the world of ‘Reap.’ Great stuff. Again the narrative voice is so strong that it tends to overwhelm the supporting characters, such as Jeremy’s girlfriend Cass. Her emergence at the end of the book as a ‘real person’ seemed a bit pat, but I feel that is part and parcel with transition into the action of the next book, as well as her association to the world of ‘Reap,’ as you’ll see in a minute.
It is this alternate world of ‘Reap’ where ‘Murderland’ falls a bit flat, and I don’t think it is Cook’s fault at all. The dystopian shocker, as a genre, has a pedigree going back almost 200 years, but as a vital, living form of art seems to lack enough critical work being thrown at it. In ‘Murderland’ serial killers are extended a sort of disability/affirmative action, that instead of causing them to be mocked as our Asperger’s sufferers are, instead are lionized by letting the basest instincts of the public run wild. This is a marvelous concept, like something Aldous Huxley would have come up with had ‘Answer Me!’ been around when he was alive. Instead we are treated to the same old stuff: murder-themed restaurants, gangs of people dressed like Jack the Ripper, and TV shows tracking killing instead of sports. One character does stand out: serpent-jawed Godless Jack, who shows the potential of combining the self-righteous killer with the bodily transgressive for maximum creepy effect.
So what went south? And just barely, because this is a great book, and perhaps only a fellow writer with a head full of philosophy and nose for the Frankfurt school would really go this far. There’s a pitfall in this fiction that needs to be explored, and I suppose instead of being bummed that I am rambling away from review territory, Garrett Cook may be pleased that I am inspired by his work to tackle a new term for the genre: ‘The Reverse Uncanny Valley.’
The Uncanny Valley is a theory, not considered scientific necessarily, that as simulacra (such as robots or CGI characters) become more realistic, human reactions to them become more favorable up to a certain point, at which point they drop off sharply. Plotted on a graph, this dip in reactions is the Valley. The commonly accepted explanation is that as more things become ‘normal,’ the details that are not are more noticeable, and the brain rejects the whole. I disagree. To me, I think that something about an almost-perfect robot causes us to consciously or unconsciously question exactly what it is that makes us human, and we can’t put our finger on it. Thus revulsion towards the object of our existential confusion. Obviously, if you want to sell a robot or market a cartoon character, no dice. Thus, as stated in the “Shrek” DVD extras, they had to make Princess Fiona less beautiful, because she was creeping the animators out. In a critical view, the idea of the Uncanny Valley is not a scientic one, supportable with data, but a philosophic and methodological one: we want it to be there as part of our aesthetics, we have decided that there will be an Uncanny Valley to avoid in the creation of simulacra.
However, a sort of mirror image exists, not a precise opposite, but a complimentary technique, and for a lack of better term, I’m calling it the Reverse Uncanny Valley. Perhaps something like Cook’s Canyon would be more appropriate- but I must confess I am hoping that Stigler’s Law of Eponymy doesn’t take hold and Gulbranson’s Canyon might be it.
So taking it as a given that there is an Uncanny Valley showcasing how little we know about what makes us human, I think there’s very strong evidence that the Reverse Valley tells us all about how our society is fucked up and staring us in the face every day, only no matter how weird and roundabout a way it may choose to tell us, the issues it confronts are very immediate and direct. The dystopia- the fractured place- in the future, well, it’s not in the future, and it’s revolting because we’re standing at ground zero, realizing it on the same level as staring into the soulless eyes of a robot with a sweet, fuckable body and perfect face. Take “A Clockwork Orange”- perhaps the most recognizable and effective piece of dystopian fiction (book and film) ever. Bowler hats and penis furniture aside, it’s really about kids talking funny, morals being challenged, the government not giving a shit about you, and violence lying in the heart of everyone. Timeless stuff, and apply it to the environment of your story, and you have dystopian lit first class. It’s going to resonate. Don’t doubt me. I laughed when I read about the futuristic Stalin ad campaign in “Terraplane,” but I wasn’t laughing when I bought that bottle of black bean sauce with a dancing Stalin on it at the Russian market a month later.
Of course there’s a wide spectrum- ranging from the prosaic and heartbreaking “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” by Jack Womack to “Grape City” by Kevin L. Donihe. Womack’s is the diary of a 12-year-old girl during an economic collapse, and her eventual transformation into a killer. No miracles or alternate history required. Donihe gives us a vision of a humanity so distorted that demons and devils have been brought to their knees by our perversity and brutality, and the story veers into surreal and absurd at every turn, but still shows us our true face right now.
That’s the power of dystopian fiction. Despite the trappings of a usually escapist science fiction setting, its immediacy lets us know we are somewhere between ankle-and upper lip-deep in the flood. The heavy hitters of this literature are credited with social change and literary influence unlike any other genre. Apart from the stylistic flubs I mentioned earlier(consequences of an industry-wide ignorance, and the equivalent of spiked armpads in post-apocalyptic movies), “Murderland” shows that Garrett Cook may be on his way to being one of those heavy hitters. Protagonist Jeremy reminds us that we’re just a couple of newspaper articles away from going native wherever we are, and that is in the classic spirit of running straight down to the bottom of the Valley. Perhaps now that Cook knows why he should … perhaps he’ll
homestead for a while. There aren’t many writers I’d rather have down there.