Thursday, February 25, 2021

Cohen, Nick Bones Underground (2019)

Philip M. Cohen, Nick Bones Underground. Koehler Books, 2019. Pp. 371. ISBN 978-1-63393-920-2. $19.95.

Reviewed by Don Riggs

Nick Bones Underground is a slipstream novel, combining elements of Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy, and the Crime/Detection genre. It is set in a vague time frame, given that at least one of the characters is a Holocaust survivor, albeit a very old one, and computer technology has advanced into the realm of Artificial Intelligence, which impacts the daily life of the narrator-protagonist, Nicholas Friedman, a professor of Comparative Religions at a university in New York City. Life in the city has been inflected by something which is referred to as the “Great Debacle,” which is never completely explained or defined except at one point as having had to do with computers’ developing a degree of free will and acting in unpredictable ways. The most evident example of this cybernetic behavior comes in the form of Maggie, the A.I. in the apartment of the narrator, who, having become a transgender computer, now yearns to become an incarnation of Marlene Dietrich.

Maggie has a very protective attitude towards the narrator, and acts in ways as a caretaker, heating up his breakfast coffee and hot cereal as well as doing online searches at his request. Prof. Friedman did a missing person search at a private individual’s request, although he has no connection to the police department and up to that point had had no experience in locating the disappeared. However, he did find the individual, who at that point was just a skeleton, and this exploit earned him the moniker “Nick Bones” in the New York media.

Nick Bones Underground also has links to Yiddish culture; the plot setting from a story by the late Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” where two boys who had grown up together studying in a yeshiva in Eastern Europe go separate ways, one becoming a secular Jew and the other an ultra-Orthodox rebbe. In Nick Bones, the narrator graduates from the yeshiva as a skeptic, possibly an agnostic, but retains his drive to consider the ultimate questions and concerns of religion in general, studying many faiths. His boyhood best friend, Shmulie Schimmer, an out-and-out nonbeliever, goes to a prestigious graduate school in chemistry, and makes a fortune by developing a designer drug that is both a psychedelic and a stimulant, but turns its users into unconscious vegetables in an apparently permanent coma. Shmulie’s father, Abe, tracks down Nick Bones to locate his son, who has been missing for years.

At this point, the search becomes a Descent Narrative, where Nick—despite the very emotional protests of Maggie, the A.I.—goes into the Velvet Underground, which is a subterranean city occupying an abandoned subway tunnel. What he encounters there is a fantasmagoric series of spaces occupied by a weird assortment of what may be called posthuman citizens who have escaped from aboveground New York City. As with many of the Descent Myths from the ancient world and their more modern counterparts, Nick encounters many elements from his own past that have led to his personal current state of affairs, as well as the residue of past societal trends and actions that have formed this near-post-apocalyptic reality. There are many allusions to 1960s pop culture, such as the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, who is perhaps the model for Nick’s walk on the wild side here.

One of the pleasures of reading this novel is that the author makes very understated mentions of things that, the reader comes to know, will emerge as significant foreshadowings of later events; these are so subtle, however, that it is easy to overlook them at the time. Some of this has to do with Nick’s coming to awareness of his own culpability in the epidemic of the specific drug, which has taken many young people out of their lives full of promise to a permanent residence in a hospital bed, where they are comatose and simply turned over from time to time by nurses to prevent bedsores. There is an echo here of the opioid crisis in recent American society, as well as the practice of slipping roofies in other people’s drinks.

The occurrence of Yiddish words adds to the overall flavor of the novel’s setting, which is good, although it is possible that for readers who do not “speak Jewish,” as my Russian-born grandma put it, they will have difficulty knowing whatever they mean. For science fiction readers, who simply take for granted that not all of the technical terms will be “real,” this would be no problem, and the same for people who can get the basic idea of what a “nudnik” is or “mishigas,” although the author follows the mention of “davenning” at one point with a description of what the people davenning are doing, that serves almost as a definition. Perhaps people should read Nick Bones Underground with a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish handy; there could also be, in the book’s next edition, a brief Glossary for the Goyim.

Ultimately, this novel is a Mad Scientist narrative. It is as if Dr. Jekyll had, after developing his miracle elixir, released it to the world under the canny ministrations of a highly efficient marketer. Nick Bones Underground in addition explores the complex web of interconnectedness and shared responsibility in the context of a tapestry of sects of a religion inflected by Artificial Intelligence and Virtual, if not virtuous, Reality. Despite the fact that this is really a very funny novel, there are some very significant ethical issues raised here, and while some of the morals of the story are fairly obvious, there are also some issues that are not so easily resolved.

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