Sunday, February 23, 2014

Smith, Purified (2014)

Brian Robert Smith, Purified. 323 Books, 2014. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-0-99204-830-3. $2.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

In a small-ish mid-western town, two body-snatchers are at work in a funeral home, removing the late lamented wife of a local cop—but she is considerably less dead than previously supposed. In the middle of no-where, Mason Bushing escapes from a secret installation, revived and bouncing after he thought he was dead. A scientific genius has discovered a way to cheat death, but Mason will not willingly become just any old medical guinea-pig, and with the desire to rekindle his old life anew, he sets off across the corn fields…

Smith has aimed for action, humanity and draws out (whether he realises it or not) comparisons to the modern monster parable, creating a Frankenstein story for modern medical technology. Smith appears to touch on questions on human existence, such as; what is identity? When our living life is taken away, who are we? How do we live? His protagonist, Mason, is our focus of attention, the Frankenstein Creature with a name and a past and enough machismo to take to his fists to solve some sticky situations. Unfortunately, Smith’s skill does not match the bravado and breadth of his project. The book has great potential, but has been ‘sent out into this breathing world, scarce half made up’, as the Poet might say. It’s a shame; there is a lot here to tickle the imagination.

There are a plethora of questions to chew over, or at least, what appears to bee stimulated in the reader by the story. Primarily, this story questions morals and choices made based on one’s personal code. Mason has to face up to decisions he made about living his life before; decisions that have lead inexorably to how he is now treated as a revived individual: a wife he chose out of blind devotion revealed as a gold-digger who cares not a jot for him. The affair he had with his best friend’s wife, making any sort of home-coming acutely significant for both of them, at such an emotionally febrile time. Mason also decides not to go to the police, and as events mount up, along with cop-show clich├ęs (angry, emotionally fraught semi-beast detective with rough heart in the right place, police custody brutality, unimpressed police doctor), this choice, while making for what dramatic tension there is, speaks more about Mason as a morally dubious man with a guilty conscience about how he lived his living life, than providing little more than suitable material for the detective—Warren—to angst and chew on. And yet, Mason might have been rough in places, but his marriage and his best friend’s turned them from gym-hitting knuckle-heads into something more domesticated, although the tough-guy violence can break out. Certainly this might make Mason more suitable as an anti-hero, but it washes weaker in terms of what Smith might have made of a story that could actively question human choice and morals, for Mason is more of your typical action hero than a figure for philosophical discussion.

Medical morals are more obviously under fire, but since only by show-and-tell:—the very doing of underground experimentation on terminal patients, helped by sympathetic nurses at the hospital, and later on the description of Dr Harlow’s ‘failures’; mutated beasts. Apart from Masons’ own agonising over what he should and should not do, there is little in the way of direct engagement with medical moral debate, and the whole is rather negated by the decision by Smith to emphasise action and adventure over any serious emotional examination. Moreover, Harlow is a cackling maniac; the archetypal ‘mad scientist’, experimenting in secret. With that representing medical advancement, there are little credible grounds here for academic engagement, although to give it its due, this does not seem to be a story that is aiming for that.

What does remain is the question first raised by Mary Shelley; who is the monster: the re-animated aberration of nature, with his thinking and attempting to fit in, or his cackling, clearly lunatic, but purely ‘human’ creator? Smith clearly based his style on the sci-fi actioneer; there is emphasis on visuals and graphic detail, and so in philosophical terms, this is about as deep as it gets. The reader is free to take this further if they wish, but I don’t think deep theoretical engagement is the whole point. If it is, then Smith needs to look again at his work; I have made some thoughts on this below.

Let us look a bit at The Frankenstein Question, since this is one theme that cannot be denied to this book. What makes a person a person? Is it our birth, our self-generated attempts to change? And what place in society for perceived non-persons? Mason is a man without a home, a life and even a name; he died in hospital, a young victim to cancer. This is where speculative fiction can come into its own, even pulp tales like Purified; questioning human social issues perhaps more successfully here than human emotional/psychological detail. Smith goes to great labours to give us all the inside life of his hero, his old flame and detective Warren, but it flattens on the page through rather heavy-handed style. Instead what his book can highlight is the Frankenstein Question. Naturally the reader could insert their ‘non-person’ category of choice; by race, gender, sexuality, etc. In such an open forum, and with no especial group, beyond that of being dispossessed, chosen by Smith, the way is clear to lay pretty much any reading on the story. In fact, it would work with any character type in Mason’s place; pretty much open season on gender, race, etc. AS for disability; being legally dead makes for a difficult restart with life, although Warren is pretty convinced it is an insurance scam; we are sure, having been ‘with’ Mason since his escape, this is the real-deal revivification deal. And, thinking about it, attempting to rejoin current society where every moment of life is logged and registered, somewhere, and if not, disallow a person to have identity, and that sees dead as dead, would be very hard to pull off; the ultimate ostracisation. There is more than a touch of Universal Soldier in here, although I suspect this is unintentional. Mason is just as physical as Van Damme’s revived military experiment, with every bit as much (standard level) confusion as to his ego sum qui sum.

We can pause for a moment on a secondary question, raised more by an attempt to find character motivation than by any clear indicator in the book; and that is, what drives people? What keeps us going? Our hero, Mason, thought his wife loved him, and his only desire was to reunite and restart his life, naive as this wish might have been, it was a good intention. What will mason live for now? Is it pure ego that drives Dr Harlow? Or madness? Andrew and Steve are Harlow’s hired thugs, body-snatchers and witnesses to medical horrors. What makes such characters? A little of this is gone into, but only a smidgeon; for the thrills and the cash, we are told. And then there is Warren; groaning and clawing his way through the loss of his wife; again, a domesticating presence on a rough, almost thuggish, man. Certainly Smith is conforming to classic cinematic tropes: women as the civilising, taming influence on men. But, again, here we stop short, as while speculation is commenced, there is little in the book to make a proper assessment of; only speculation is left to us.

Basically, this is a 1980s/1990s action film translated to written word. Bursts of physical activity with patched-in ‘human story’ sections that only serve to muddle Smith’s intentions towards character development. It heats up in the final part (it is split into three, although I could see no real reason to do so; chapter sections were sufficient) when Mason decides, heartbroken, his friend dead, his guilt in overdrive, to return to Harlow, and finishes his association with that man in a flame-filled series of explosions. Joined by Warren and his old flame, Stace, it’s a solid actioneer finale. While his companions investigate and release Harlow’s psychiatric patients (a side line the doctor had going as a cover) from the clutches of his violent mutant rejects, Mason rescues Linda, watches Harlow blow his lab (heavy foreshadowing throughout with the description of C4 packs lying about the place, wired and ready) and, utilising his new, functional, mutant abilities, flies to safety. If that wasn’t worth waiting for, Mason’s initial escape sees him trying to find his way home in an unforgiving world; full of farmers with guns and dogs. Andrew and Steve make a splash of their own with tyre-squealing drives in the van; to collect Linda Warren and to attempt to recapture Mason. Then there is Mason’s fight with his ex’s new boyfriend, and the extraneous police force used to subdue him. But I will admit that the fight where his best friend Reg is killed was genuinely sad; the relationship between ‘best buds’ in action films has long been documented for its more appreciable (homoerotic) emotion between two male characters in what is a very machismo genre.

Purified owes its style primarily not only to action films but to classic B-movie cheese. The mad scientist, using dying flesh, strives to ‘purify’ it into something super-human. Specifically, a 4-armed, 4-legged, be-winged super-being. The fact that Harlow’s unstable moods and ‘cackling’ are laid down means that, while he is not a realistic character, he is of very recognisable and long-lived narrative stock. Then there are those elements that have moved from B reel to the 1980s actioneer; the new home for cinematic cheese—and Smith is writing very visually; in an open, obvious style very suitable for a direct translation to a screen. Of those elements; the sudden move by Stace of grieving new widow into a side-kick to help Warren bust open the baddies’ lair; the strong female character taking on masculine strength and non-emotionality in order to ‘get the job done’. For a hero needs his buddies, his back-up. Add to this the over-heavy ‘cop stuff’ that Warren espouses. The gurning, grinding cop-on-the-edge character so familiar from noir and dime novels. One-dimensional and specific, Warren is meant to be Mason’s biggest block, transformed by a revelation that Mason is telling the (outrageous) truth into a reluctant ally. Inevitable, really; he and Mason are bound into a fundamental actioneer/B movie trope; they may be rough-and-ready, but they are capable, manly men, and diamonds in the rough. They will inevitably form a partnership for the doing-down of baddies.

Smith trips up with the addition of large tracts of psychological plotting/ emoting that his characters make, especially Mason and Warren. Where 1980s and 1990s action films attempted to make a nod to emotional depth; the romantic female leads were more often than not the main tool for doing so, or a ‘revelation’ scene where the male hero sees devastation/ his own weakness/fear and makes an emotive change of heart/decision, Smith has written tracts of inside life for Mason and Warren, while Stace also is granted some, but fewer, inside thoughts. Unfortunately, the constant return to what is basically existential angst with no obvious thread of engaged change by the character, these read as mawkish wallowing; for reader and character. One has to wade through the over-loading of every emotional point that seemed to have occurred to the author with regards to his characters’ situations. Nothing is left to reader supposition or thought, so there is little encouragement to engage at a deeper level. It is more a simple presentation of the author’s ideas and images, with no need for subtler instigation of reader input into a fourth wall/ third dimension. The pacing, too, is uneven, with this shaky switch between action plot and paused thought space. The narrative lines lurches from passage to passage; there doesn’t feel to be a very coherent flow, and this comes down to a fundamental problem: the over-use of adjective, adverb and descriptive phrase for pretty much every thought and action, no matter how small. It comes across as clunky, uneven, over-described, and lacks fluidity. It makes it heavy to read in places, and it’s a shame that what could be an unashamed book of action and visceral fun tries to be also a book of deeper human meaning, and thereby trips up in both directions simultaneously.

This story basically could do with serious editing and tightening. The premise is engagingly frisky, with some potential to be a modern Frankenstein and have the emotional and social depth that such a connection provides, but it is not yet matured for long enough on the vine to make a vintage with subtle flavours. The author describes the effort as a ‘marathon’ that he ‘persevered’ with. I have to be honest and say that it felt in place like a test of perseverance, and it needs more rigorous post-perseverance shaping to make give this story the wings with which it could fly as a pulp staple.

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