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.