Review: I Am Me, by Ram Sundaram

>>Published: December 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

The door behind him opened and I saw Amelia enter the room again. I turned around expectantly, but there was no Amelia in my room. I listened to her asking him to be ready for his cue in two minutes. He nodded, and she wished him good luck with a kiss that told me their relationship was different than the one I shared with her. When she left the room again, he turned back to the mirror and looked at me… yes, directly at me.

“You’re it,” he told me, but did not explain what he meant. When he left, closing the door behind him, my eyes fell on his dresser. This time there was no bottle of gin on it, empty or full. A part of me wanted to turn around to see what I would find on my own dresser. But I no longer had the luxury of observing two realities. For somehow in the past half hour, I had stopped being the magician and the performer; instead I had become the man in the mirror, a reflection.

***

Ram Sundaram’s modestly experimental book of short fiction, I Am Me is less a collection of twenty split narratives bookended by additional mirrored prologues and epilogues, and more a mosaic of the author’s personal philosophical journey. The aggressive overarching conceit—that twin flames and parallel selves exist across universes and realities (or states thereof)—is further complicated by the book’s physical structure: ten stories read from one end, ten stories read from the other (by flipping the book and starting from the rear… whichever end you deem that to be), with the twin epilogues of “Absolution” meeting in the middle. Whether or not this structural decision works to the book’s benefit is up to the individual. Personally, I found it needlessly cumbersome and wished for an alternative. This was primarily due to my desire to flip back and forth between stories in one half of the book and their conceptual parallel in the other. However, the decision to produce the book in this fashion doesn’t mar the content within. It’s merely a small frustration I wanted to address.

The stories themselves are an interesting mix of voices, ethnicities, and upbringings. As previously mentioned, the two halves of the book (divided by the twin prologues “Dreamless” and “Dreamer”) consist each of ten stories sharing the same selection of titles, but offering mirror images and alternate realities of one another. From the Author’s Note that opens the text: “The purpose of this ‘two-way’ arrangement though, ultimately, is to challenge the segregation of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction.’ These two labels are not as mutually exclusive as we deem; for the world of fiction borrows heavily (if not entirely) from existing fact, while the factual reality we perceive in our daily life is tainted with lies, fantasies and the artful brush strokes of an entire population’s imagination.”

Though ambitious, Sundaram’s stories have difficulty finding and maintaining any true sense of weight or social significance. I was reminded a lot of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist—not in a narrative or qualitative sense, but in the book’s more philosophical bend. The interrogative is used to a dangerous degree in Sundaram’s stories. He asks more questions than he endeavours to answer. The questions themselves are about man’s nature, his relationship to the world, himself, and those around him; about one’s upbringing and whether or not that determines their quality as a human being. These are all valid questions to explore, but it is through his overt posing of such questions that the book loses its impact.

The scenarios presented aren’t given enough voice to be relied upon for presenting the questions, and possibly the answers as well, through their narratives and his character’s actions. Too often he asks directly, as if expecting the underlying of his stories to be too easily lost on the reader. In other instances, too many answers are given, points hammered home; “An Apple Branch” is a perfect example of this. In the “Dreamless” half of the book (which I took to be the more faithful and less reliant on magical realism to enforce its purpose), this is a tale of two neighbours, Maurice and Anwar, and the apple tree between their properties and the friendship it helps forge between them. This friendship, however, is twisted and destroyed one day, as the cultural views of a nation turn against Anwar and others of his ethnic background. This is all fine, but Sundaram, instead of incorporating imagery or a sense of foreboding into his tale that might relate indirectly or directly to the cause of this sudden shift, feels the need to end the story with the perfunctory paragraph: Maurice and Anwar parted ways that afternoon, forever. And the 200-year old apple tree was cut down in anger that very evening. The evening of September 11, 2001.

This example is endemic of the book’s most obvious problems: Sundaram always takes that extra step too far and explains his point, rather than allowing the reader to discover it for themselves. For this reason, I found the “Dreamer” tales to be the more engaging of the two halves. Though still overcooked in this manner, it is not to nearly the same degree, and their surrealism is given province over Sundaram’s need to explain.

This is not to say the book is without enjoyment. Far from it. “At First Sight” is the strongest title in the collection, and the only one that is strong in both halves of the book. For the remaining standouts, usually one of the pair is far stronger in voice than the other: “Fifty Cents” in the “Dreamless” portion of the book feels ham-fisted and too direct, while its “Dreamer” counterpart is charming, innocent, and leaves much to the imagination. Apart from the prologues and epilogues, which felt like unnecessary monologues from the author’s own philosophical avatar, Ishvar, the only story that did not work for me in either reality is the final tale, “Immortal in Death.”

Sundaram’s voices are well developed, and his use of imagery is sound. I admire the intent of this book, but in the end I wish more restraint had been given—to both the design of the book, and to the author’s overly direct need to pose and answer his own questions. Simply not enough agency and trust is given to the reader.

Review: Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

>>Published: May 2006

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

This will be shorter than most reviews I post because, in perfect honesty, this is the first book I’ve given up on in several years. 250 pages in I gave up the fight and scanned through to the epilogue. I tried. I really wanted to love this book and its protagonist Robert Gu, a world-renowned poet who at age seventy-five was given treatment that not only reversed his Alzheimer’s, but gave him the body of a twenty-five year old in the process. It’s a novel about connecting with a lapsed generation and also generations of family long neglected. There are also global conspiracies, library riots and Fahrenheit 451-style book cleansings, and far too much needless HTML-based artifice—the silent messaging between characters is distracting and not woven well into the book:

Miri –> Juan, Lena, Xiu: <sm>Okay, I think Robert sees them.
Lena –> Juan, Miri, Xiu: <sm>I see them! Can you, Xiu?
Xiu –> Juan, Lena, Miri: <sm>no yet i must—
Miri –> Juan, Lena, Xiu: <sm>Don’t try to message back, Dr. Xiang. You’re not fast enough yet; Robert will get suspicious. Just talk out loud, as if to him and Juan.<sm>

Though the purpose of this artifice is clear, it grinds certain sections of the book to a halt. In the end, however, the greatest crime of this book is simply that while it is written well enough, its characters, setting, and plot are unengaged and uninteresting. There’s no colour or imagery to this world beyond the barest of descriptors, and none of it triggered an emotional response. I wanted to love more than the idea behind Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. I wanted to, but I couldn’t, and I didn’t.

Review: Heartsnatcher, by Boris Vian

>>Published (in French): 1953

>>Published (in English): 1968

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

At the sound of the word shame Timortis took a step back—and then felt ashamed of himself for having done so.

‘I’ve got a home,’ said the man who, having noticed Timortis’s movement, gave a sour little smile. ‘I get my food. And they give me gold. Loads of it. But I haven’t got the right to spend it. Nobody wants to—and nobody will—sell me anything. I’ve got a house and I’ve got loads of gold—but I have to swallow the shame of the whole village for them. They pay me to feel their remorse for them. Remorse for everything wicked and evil that they do. For every one of their vices. And every one of their crimes. For the Old Folks Fair. For the tortured animals. For the apprentices. And for all the film and scum.’

He stopped for a moment.

‘But all this can’t be very interesting for you,’ he went on again. ‘You don’t mean to stay here, do you?’

There was a long pause.

And then, ‘Yes. I do,’ said Timortis, decisively. ‘I do mean to stay here.’

‘Then you’ll grow like all the others,’ said the man. ‘You’ll learn to live with a clear conscience and you’ll load the weight of your shame on to me. And you’ll give me gold. And sell me nothing for it in return.

***

Drawn to a strange and surreal village by the cries of a woman named Clementine as she prepares to give birth to triplets Noel, Joel, and Alfa Romeo, the psychiatrist Timortis (who wants only to “psychiatrize” at every available opportunity) finds himself surrounded by fairs that auction off the elderly like cattle, a priest with transcendent performance skills, and a man named Glory Hallelujah, who spends his days fishing the skeletons of the dead (and from people’s closets) out of a scarlet stream, using only his teeth.

Boris Vian’s Heartsnatcher, the last novel completed before his death in 1959, is a book about obsession, manipulation, and shame. Timortis, a travelling avatar for the audience, is both inquisitor and subject. Through Clementine and her oppressive desire to protect her children by removing them from the world with increasing severity, Timortis witnesses the idiosyncratic extremes of the villagers. They are caricatures, two-dimensional embodiments of greed, sexual depravity, ignorance, cruelty, and control. Together they construct a Rorschach of proclivities and desires—of wanting everything, all the time, as swiftly and simply as possible; of complete and total control over one’s life, offspring, and exterior threats to self. As days turn into months and years, Timortis is engulfed by the village, quickly falling prey to its strange yet enticing ways.

Vian’s view of society is… dismal, at best. Through Clementine, Glory Hallelujah, and the vicar, he’s crafted three pillars of love and devotion so entirely corrupted by the nature of those around them that all hope is abandoned. Clementine, so eager to shelter her children (prone to quite literal flights of fancy) that she would rather trap them in cages for the rest of their lives; Glory Hallelujah, so giving of himself and ambivalent towards life that he accepts his role as universal village scapegoat, destined, somewhat nobly, to live and die for the sins of others; and the vicar, who views God as a luxury item, a privilege—not a right afforded equally to all men and women—performing for his parish as a means of placating them, convincing them of his power, of his direct line to God.

Heartsnatcher is more than the sum of its parts. Vian’s characters pull together to create a smartly conceived tapestry that never falls too far to the whims of deliberate absurdity or contrived occurrences. Through Timortis and the months and years that bleed together (quite literally, in some cases—Novembruary, Aprigust, Octoptember), Vian presents a series of black and white archetypes with little room for personal emotional embellishment, yet manages to evoke pathos all the same.

Review: Machine Man, by Max Barry

>>Published: August 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

After I escorted Lola back aboveground, I returned to Lab 4 and sat on the floor beside my leg. I had thought Lola might like my leg, but you never knew. Her reaction exceeded all my expectations.

Then I felt depressed. It was the opposite of a logical reaction but there it was. I always felt like this at the end of a project. I would be frantic and determined and excited then sad because it was over and there was nothing left to improve. I stared at the leg. It occurred to me that I hadn’t escaped my bottlenecks. I had only pushed them back. I had made a leg that could walk by itself, which was okay, but I could see now that this was about as far as it could go. All improvement from here would be incremental, because the bottleneck was my body.

It was late. My lab assistants had left. I looked at my leg, the good one. Well. I don’t mean “good.” I mean the one I’d had since birth. I rolled up my pants and turned it this way and that. It was fat and weak and ordinary. The more I looked at it, the more it bugged me.

***

Charles Neumann is a scientist, first and foremost. Practical. Detached. Unemotional, to an extreme degree. When he loses one of his legs in Machine Man’s opening chapter, it isn’t the ordeal one might imagine. Oh, sure, it’s tremendously painful, but whatever physical pain Charles experiences is diminished by the opportunity for creation his sudden handicap has afforded him. When a charming prosthetist named Lola Shanks attempts to fit Charles with what she deems an advanced, unparalleled prosthetic limb, Charles sees only room for improvement. And through improvement, further cause for the artificial expansion of the human body. When Charles’ employers, the Better Future research and technological development institute, learn of his work, creating stronger, more capable artificial limbs, they see power and potential military contracts.

Machine Man is Max Barry’s deadpan send-up of science fiction cyborg culture. Charles, in his practical-to-a-fault mindset, plays fast and loose with what it means to be a human—specifically, with what proportion of organic material does a human stop being a human and become a machine. And to similar effect: does the issue of humanity being defined as a certain percentage of flesh and blood preclude the possibility of expansion into artificial realms, should the opportunity present itself, while maintaining the rights and respect intrinsic to human society?

Heady topics to be sure, but handled with a subtle, sarcastic hand. Barry doesn’t delve too deeply into the social mechanics of artificial versus organic; his approach is individualistic, for each person to define based on their desires and perceived limitations. There’s merit to Charles’ work, but insofar as it remains an individual pursuit. The speed at which it changes and becomes something larger, social, and business oriented is the larger story at play in Machine Man.

Charles is not a typical protagonist. He’s a brick wall of sorts—an unengaged narrator with an entirely self-serving reason for being. Best I can describe, he’s a science-first extrapolation of the artist Stelarc, who has been experimenting with the concept of the cyborg—of literally expanding beyond the flesh and blood self to varying degrees of sophistication—for his own purposes. However, where Stelarc is interested in the expansion of the existing organic template—using technology to improve upon what’s there, to facilitate the improvement of our already present bodily functions and capabilities—Charles seeks to remove and replace the organic with cold, purely mechanical architecture, reflecting the emotional barriers he has spent an isolated lifetime perfecting. Even his interest in Lola is, at first, one of rigidly defined benefit, as she exhibits terrific interest in his growing artificial desires. Though a stronger emotional core does evolve between the two, the extent to which they love one another as genuine individuals is never clear. The element of mechanical lust and the fetishization of bodily expansion is always present, always in question.

I enjoyed Machine Man. It offers a smart, satirical tale of self-obsession masked as self-improvement. It approaches bodily harm and self-mutilation in a more inquisitive and less exploitative manner than Brian Evenson’s Last Days, which presented a cult-like search for spiritual enlightenment through the removal of one’s limbs. But where Last Days capitalized on its grotesque, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock approach, Machine Man achieves a greater level of introspection and social commentary with a much quieter hand.