Sunday, October 30, 2011

Youers, End Times (2010)

Rio Youers, End Times. PS Publishing, 2010. Pp. 235. ISBN 978-1-848631-00-7. £20.00 / $31.00.

Reviewed by Nathan Lea

End Times, published by PS Publishing, is the first novel by Amersham-born Rio Youers, the author of several short stories (including ‘The Ghost of Lillian Bliss’ published in The New and Perfect Man and ‘Quoth the Rock Star’ published in Required Reading Remixed Volume 1), and two novellas: Mama Fish and the 2010 British Fantasy Award nominee Old Man Scratch. PSP have also recently published his short story collection Dark Dreams, Pale Horses. Youers has won critical acclaim for his work: New York Times bestselling author Peter Straub believes that “Rio Youers is one of the most vital, most exciting young talents to come along in this decade”, whilst Horror Drive-In’s Mark Sieber lists him amongst his favourite authors after reading Mama Fish, counting him among “guys that knock your socks right the fuck off of your feet...”

End Times describes the journey of Scott Hennessey, a self-mutilated, relapsing cocaine addict, from his drug-addled life as a writer for a local paper to the fulfilment of his destiny as a fundamental participant in the realisation of an American Indian prophecy. This journey, narrated for the most part by Hennessey himself, is punctuated by his need to indulge his reckless desire, which becomes managed through time spent with a mysterious love interest, a woman who becomes the embodiment of his new-found peace and contentment, and his long-time best friend and confidante, Sebastian Cross, a survivor of a fatal joy-riding accident that left the driver dead and Cross a paraplegic; both of these characters form the foundations of Hennessey’s life and ultimately, end times. On starting to read the book, armed with the ill-advised yet inevitable judgment of the book’s cover and its summary, and given the other topics that Youers’ work seems to focus on, I wondered pessimistically what this spiritual, psychological thriller would deliver: would this be a story that employed a plethora of dark subject matter for the sake of it to the point that it undermined the quality of the end result?

Despite the predictability of Cross’ fate and occasional blandness in writing style where the narrative lapses into seemingly lengthy descriptions that read like they belonged in a surveyor’s report, I cannot praise this work more highly: the account is sensitive, detailed, compelling, honest and sometimes heart-wrending: Hennessey’s experience of living on the street is galling, and the death of a homeless companion is tenderly and poignantly described; the meeting where he admits his guilt to the elderly, frail Luther Big Crow, father of a girl that he had assaulted with a group of cult members, is relayed so honestly that it leaves a swell of ache and pity for not only Big Crow, but also Hennessey. The use of contrast in this work is superbly executed—the harsh, grim reality of living with addiction, guilt, self-mutilation and loathing is juxtaposed with an honest, self critical consideration as the narrator recounts his story. Always clear, personal and believable, the tale is riveting, often exciting and, at times, terrifying.

Youers masters tone and character superbly: as Hennessey’s character remembers dealing with going cold turkey, the tone shifts to a visceral, engulfing and utterly believable mania; where the narration shifts from Hennessey to other characters, it is remarkably and deftly altered. The depth of Hennessey’s character is matched by that of Cross, the ageing Big Crow, Joseph Dreaming Bear, a companion and confidante for Hennessey when he comes to Pine Ridge, and Jimmy High Pipe, an eccentric Elvis Presley fan who dresses as the singer, but slips into his role as a medicine man with striking suddenness as he uses his skills to empower Hennessey to confront and overpower his addiction.

These intense concepts, characters and issues are well supported by a streak of subtle humour peppered throughout the narrative: from the antics of Dreaming Bear and High Pipe to Hennessey’s own dry sense of humour, this proves to be a much needed, uncontrived facet of this novel. There is also a refreshing linearity to this work, which helps to accentuate the narrative and journey. I also felt the cynic in me occasionally tickled—sometimes wanting to dismiss Hennessey’s journey as self-induced and not something that I felt I should be taking so much interest in. But these moments were rare: for all the wickedness, selfishness and stupidity that a harsher reader might see in Hennessey and Cross, I liked these people. I felt enormous sympathy for them and truly wanted them to find the peace and contentment that they had hitherto lacked, and which the Oglala Sioux characters seemed to have in abundance, despite their personal pain and dire circumstances.

Mindful of my initial uncertainties prior to completing the novel, I am delighted to be reminded that you should never judge a book by its cover. End Times expertly handles difficult, profoundly dark and very real issues, tying them in to a narrative that includes a well-structured story and believable, compelling and loveable characters; it serves as a voice for the ancient, vibrant American Indian culture and people, telling their story as it is and allowing the reader to infer their own thoughts and feelings on their situation. Nothing in this novel is irrelevant, out of place or laboured, or pressures the reader to think or feel anything other than what they want to. For these reasons I recommend this book: it certainly offers scope and material for thought, informed discussion and self-reflection.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Astruc, Harmonica & Gig (2011)

RJ Astruc, Harmonica & Gig. Dragonfall Press, 2011. Pp. 371. ISBN 978-0-9806341-4-3. $2.99 AUD (+ suggested $2 contribution).

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

“Arnold Lee is found in a pool of his own blood with seventeen silver-steel knives sticking out of his body. Door unlocked, no signs of a struggle, naked except for a neurocap and bodysuit. Best case scenario the forensics can come up with is that Lee did it to himself. He’s sat there in his swank Wellington apartment and calmly inserted seventeen implements into his torso, one after the other, twisting them savagely now and then so the blood comes faster. Steak knives, bread knives, butter knives—he’s raided his kitchen for the tools. You’d think a man intent on committing suicide would find a more pleasant way to go.”

In RJ Astruc’s Harmonica & Gig, corporate matriarch Viger Singer seems to think so, too; but in a time when reality, virtual reality, and even altered reality are so intermingled that you can’t always tell them apart, nothing is ever what it seems.

When hacks Regina ‘Harmonica’ Carter, Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen and Lloyd ‘Talobos’ Hong are summoned to INTROMET headquarters on the premise of a job interview, all are taken aback to learn they are, in fact, being blackmailed into solving the mysterious death; but with the whole world watching and bodies piling up, it only becomes harder to tell who is really pulling the strings, and why.

Beyond the story itself, Harmonica & Gig is a cautionary tale. At its root are the dangers of openness on the internet, and the power wielded by massive corporations that quietly gather personal information without users’ consent. As the usefulness and importance of having an online life, and the number of news stories of information-gathering by companies such as Facebook, Google and various smartphone app developers increases, so too does the importance of the lessons in Harmonica & Gig. At one time, the internet was an anonymous place to while away the leisure hours, a form of escape, sans responsibility and accountability. Yet as more people discover the usefulness of the internet as a networking tool, our online and real lives become more and more intertwined, causing us to continually define and redefine our personas, our relationships, even our intentions... and in real life, we haven’t even started using neurochips or implantable brain computer interface devices... yet. Did you know those exist?

While the general public quietly goes about the business of living daily life, corporations quietly go about the business of recording it. While they do, they also quietly grow. And grow. And then, just for fun, they grow some more. This is how a capitalist world works. And while everyone is honest, it works well. The thing is, in a dog-eat-dog business world, how many people stay honest? As Harmonica’s son says he read on the internet, “Most CEOs of major companies demonstrate pathological behaviours in order to maintain their position and hold of the market.” It feels pretty good to be on top, so who wants to stand idly by and watch it all go away because someone else had a better idea, or a better marketing plan? What kind of information have you given to a psychopath today?

As Harmonica hacks into Viger Singer’s personal INTROMET area in the qverse, she is outright embarrassed by what she sees, and she wonders, “What was it about the qverse that made people so open? That made people so willing to wear their neurosis on their sleeves?” It’s a good question. For all the false security afforded by relative anonymity, we cannot help but seek out real connections with people, often saying and doing things we wouldn’t in face-to-face situations. These days, most people are using their real names for much of their online activity, but still we have that same feeling of anonymity. We’ve taken computer screens and digital code, and manufactured psychological shields out of them. But when’s the last time a good psychological shield protected you from a car accident? We feel safe, secure. That doesn’t mean we are.

Along with the lurking darkness of corporate greed and corruption, the author also uses Harmonica & Gig to question what effects mankind’s partnership with science have in more personal areas. “These impossible designer children resting uneasily in their designer genes...” Harmonica reflects, “It was a small wonder that Gig remained ignorant of just how good-looking he was. Then again, you often got that with test-tube kids—a psychological peculiarity Malachy Memphis termed ‘appearance apathy’. They’d look in the mirror and see not a person but a construction, a laboratory technician’s fusion of catalogue DNA.”

It is undeniable that infertility can be devastating for those people who want to have a family. To date, millions of ‘test tube babies’ have been born since 1978, with the help of in vitro fertilization. Harmonica & Gig takes a look at a rarely viewed side of this genre of scientific advancement with the character of Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen, asking questions like, “What effects will this have on the kids?” How can they be proud of who they are, when everything, from looks to behavioral tendencies, to intelligence, was purposefully spliced into their genetic code? The engineers could make an entire populace just like them, if they wanted, so where goes the pride in those things that make a person an individual?

Astruc is successful at conveying feeling and making her characters real. Every single person introduced quickly becomes a solid, defined individual, with a strong personality; even those whose own sense of self is so precarious. We feel we know them better than they know themselves, and that makes them truer still.

The writing in Harmonica & Gig is fluid and strong, never faltering. Astruc does a great job of foreshadowing, without making it obvious and spoiling the tension, suspense and mystery. All of this together makes the book feel more like a cohesive experience than a leisure-time diversion. I would recommend it to anyone. In fact, I’ve recommended it to people already. Why this book is not a best seller, or at least an instant cult classic, I do not know.

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