Review: Bullettime, by Nick Mamatas

>>Published: September 2012

Sliding into him is like living in an alcoholic who can taste the Jack Daniels on her tongue in every glass of juice or soda, right before she finally says, “Fuck it,” and marches out to get laid, get drunk, and get royally fucked by the world she’s determined to toss herself out in front of. Kallis Episkipos is Dave Holbrook, with free will reclaimed.

And me? I’m Dave Holbrook too—where Kallis Episipos has free will, I have no will at all, no way to affect the world or my own life. But I get to see it all; every moron mistake and anguished inevitability. Somewhere along the infinite planes of the Ylem, there must be a way out, a way to live and a choice to make that frees us from the grip of Eris, that frees me from this waiting room of raw experiences. I just need to find it.

***

>>Ylem

>>Y-lem. Noun. The initial substance of the universe from which all matter is said to be derived. (source: Dictionary.com)

This basic concept is key to understanding Nick Mamatas’s Bullettime. Mamatas’s novella tracks the many tragic lives of New Jersey native and teenage cough syrup addict Dave Holbrook. Tripping back and forth between first- and third-person narration, Mamatas gives a rough sketch of a boy teased, bullied, beaten, stabbed, and quite simply shit on with every step he takes in life. But Dave isn’t content to exist as a Hamilton High punching bag. He steps up, makes decisions that can’t be unmade—life destroying decisions—but whose outcomes can be experienced through the ethereal omniscience provided by the ylem.

Think Run Lola Run by way of the Columbine massacre and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how things unfold.

Ylem is an interesting concept that, in practice, boils down to a series of butterfly effects: by taking a gun out at such-and-such a point, things unfold one way; shoot up the school at another point and his limited life unfolds in an entirely different matter. Portrayed as a canvas to which all possibilities are painted, the ylem offers Dave a strange sort of guardian angel’s perspective on things—Dave by way of the “I” of the narrative, and not the “he.”

At the heart of it all, as Dave’s lust interest and personal Greek goddess of discord, is Erin/Eris, at once the Eve and the apple-pushing serpent of the tale (with a cache of weapons to call her own). In none of Dave’s lives is Erin a positive influence—a spark, an igniting force, absolutely, but always a sharp object pushing in the small of his back.

And there it is—the knife pushing Dave ever forward, rushing him to his pre-mid-life demise every time, in every life. Whether the final straw comes from the unknown who stabbed him with a pen, the classmates who call him faggot and treat him like dirt, or the parents who are equal parts insane, neglectful, embittered, and abusive, the end result is invariably the same: the desire to step up and no longer be looked down upon, by whatever means necessary. Dave’s a weakling, a life-long target naively searching for his sword and shield.

Bullettime is a noir steeped in teenage misery and revenge, with some basic ideas about fate and predetermination tossed into the mix. Its experimental structure is high on concept, but unfortunately low on characterization: Dave and others are drawn in fairly one-dimensional patterns, with little to them beyond their surface attitudes and struggles. That’s not to say they aren’t a colourful bunch (Lee and Oleg especially), but with such a scattered through-line it’s difficult to feel a personal, emotional pull towards any one individual and whatever temporal stream they currently occupy.

On a conceptual level, Bullettime works more often than not. I wish Mamatas had given us more detail regarding the ylem and its presence and/or purpose within the narrative, but lacking that information does not irrevocably hamper one’s enjoyment of the book.

Those seeking a tonal shift to the discussion of fate and destiny will find much to like in Bullettime, though it’s unlikely Dave and Erin will stay with you for too long after the final page has been turned.

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