Ryan Boudinot is a great writer. He’s funny, weird, humane, endlessly creative, and exceptionally talented. But this is not my kind of book.
Boudinot operates on the continuum between science fiction and surrealism. The world has ended, near enough. The vast majority of the world’s population was wiped out in a time of chaos and human/robot wars called “The Age of Fucked-Up Shit.” In the aftermath, America is a ravaged, fragile place full of bizarre eddies.
Swirling around in a few of those eddies are our main characters.
Woo-jin Kan is a famous, world-champion dishwasher. He lives in a tiny trailer with his foster sister, Patsy, an obese woman who grows human tissues on and in her body, for profit. Every once in a while, the doctors come and slice all the tissues off of Patsy. Until the time they come and take her whole.
Abby Fogg is a film archivist who accepts a lucrative assignment from a man representing a mysterious agency called the Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential. Her mission: to retrieve a vital piece of tape from a crazy lady named Kylee Asaparagus cavorting with an army of clones on a remote island. The tape contains the last surviving interview with man who might know how the world was destroyed.
Al Skinner is an Army veteran who lives in Phoenix during the winter. Then, during the now-inhospitable summer, he gets his house shrink-wrapped and he travels north to Seattle, to try to remember the war with his old buddy.
Then there are the background details of this weird post-apocalypse. Some entity has set out to recreate New York, on the comparably-sized Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle. The Internet has evolved into the “bionet,” to which citizens can hook up their immune and nervous systems and download vaccines or codes to make medicines inside their bodies. The bionet also makes people susceptible to “DJs” who can program their nervous systems remotely, essentially hacking their brains and turning them into zombies that do whatever the DJ wants.
All of this stuff is great. Boudinot writes great characters (Woo-jin is my favorite), fantastic dialogue, and hilarious weird details. The problem, for me, is that he carefully lays out the structure of a science fictional world, and then populates it with a surreal narrative and runs it on dream logic and metaphors.
[Spoiler alert: Upcoming medium-grade spoilers about what happens late in the book. I don't think they spoil the plot, because I don't think the plot can be spoiled (which is a problem, and my main complaint). Still, be warned.]
When Woo-jin struggles to keep his tiny spot in the new, ravaged world, I’m into it. I’m into it when he gets swept up in this weird plan to figure out how the world was destroyed. But then Woo-jin’s “future brain” sends him a message to write a book for “The Last Dude” because it’s all he’ll have to read during something-or-other, and I’m not into what happens next: Woo-jin goes to New York Alki, and shops around his unreadable manuscript, which is in a couple of pizza boxes (when he mixes up the boxes, the story gets confusing but better, in his opinion).
“Shopping around his manuscript” means that Woo-jin puts the pizza boxes in a shopping cart and pushes them around to the offices of literary agents. But, in nascent New York Alki, population density is low, and none of those offices are staffed.
This is the kind of thing I just can’t get behind: an essentially meaningless, intentionally surreal image, begging for you to assign it a meaning. A man wandering the streets of a fake, half-reconstructed New York, taking the book that could save the world around to a bunch of empty agents’ offices.
I prefer my characters to be actually experiencing the central drama of a novel, instead of staggering through a surreal, symbolic world like they’re lost in a Dali painting.
Boudinot seems to know that endless surreal meandering is unsatisfying on its own, as another major thread of the novel involves the transcribed text of that interview that Abby was sent to get. In it, a man named Luke Piper talks about his friendship with Nick Fedderly, who seems to be responsible for the Age of Fucked-Up Shit. These interviews are, like the rest of the novel, well-written and compelling, but ultimately disappointing when they devolve into surrealism. (The thing that brings about the end of the world is a big red unmarked button whose purpose and function is unknown—or it might just be a symbol. In this novel, it’s impossible to tell the difference.)
But at least the interviews have a goal. Luke Piper is going somewhere. Specifically, he’s laying out how the world was destroyed. That’s more than you can really say for any of the other characters. These great characters often seem just on the verge of joining forces and … doing … something. But they don’t have anything to do, and so their stories end in deflated epiphanies that reveal their hollowness.
Like this: it turns out that Abby, after most of the novel on an island, seeing all all-clone self-incestuous orgies and other weirdnesses, was under a bionet spell the whole time. None of that mattered, Kirkpatrick just needed someone to babysit the weird island and Abby’s DJ volunteered her. That tape she was assigned to get? It disappears, and has no effect on her or anyone else’s life.
So then Abby’s sitting there, with Al Skinner (who’s been busy annihilating an army of possibly dangerous androids, but he’s been doing it all, maddeningly, off-stage). He says the guy she thought she was dating was DJing her, and that’s he the slavemaster of hundreds of bionet zombies, and that she should do something about it.
Her response: shrug.
That pretty much sums up my reaction to this book: everything you thought you’d been reading is meaningless. Shrug.
Later on, Abby does take action, finally, but little comes of it. And, similarly, Boudinot crafts a rational ending to tie it all together. Or rather, he throws out the shards of a few rational plotlines so that you, if you desire, can ostensibly go back and patch together what happened. But it’s too little too late. The surrealism at the core here, the book’s metaphorical engine, has eroded the reality of the story to the point where anything could have happened.
There are a lot of these books these days, running the gamut from metaphorical novels like Illumination and The Flame Alphabet, to meaningless weirdness like China Mieville’s Embassytown. People seem to like it. If you are one of those people, definitely read this book, because Boudinot is every bit as good as all of those writers. But if you like drama, as I do, instead of characters meandering around surreal dreamscapes, then avoid this.