Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Published: November 2011
Finally got around to it: January 2012
His eyes tightened up with the fat of violence. “They contain the uncells that cure the world’s most deadly diseases, notably HIV and cancer,” he mumbled. “They are all young. I engineered them myself and they are more beneficial than any treatment approved by the medical profession since it no longer exists. You remember the death of that stray dog? I killed him in a fit of joy after discovering the cure for HIV that I engineered actually works. If that cure were once introduced into North America, it would spread so rapidly that in eight to ten business days, the continent would be repopulated.”
“I’m stupid. I don’t understand what you mean by cures. How is it possible for a man to invent a cure?”
“I keep forgetting you’re stupid. Lie down on the floor,”—he sat down on the toilet and I stretched out on the bathroom floor,—“Certain cures are produced by certain cells or uncells that have had their DNA tinkered with by certain bioengineers who reprogram the information within them to turn them into organic machines to hunt down the diseases. Reverse engineering is easier than actual.”
I’m the first to admit that I do in fact judge books by their covers. More often than not, my fine arts-oriented brain is drawn to an unknown title sporting a very pretty jacket. So let’s shake things up a bit and start with that: design wise, Tyler Hayden’s Ohmhole is a beautiful book. Simple, minimalist aesthetics go a long way with me. The second positive mark on the list: genuinely intriguing cover copy. A dystopian future where the populace lies dying of AIDS, and the only rumoured cure is believed to be exchanged through our bodily fluids? Definitely atypical of your average governmental/corporation-controlled authoritarian future speculative work.
However, despite my strong initial intrigue, I find myself fighting for the words to describe Ohmhole. Curious? Absolutely. Ambitious. Unrestrained.
Unfortunately, I would also describe it as needlessly abrasive, immature, vulgar, and lacking an emotional core.
If pressed for an A meets B reduction of the narrative, I’d classify Ohmhole as Peter Darbyshire and Douglas Coupland meets Daniel Allen Cox and Tao Lin, minus any sort of attention to character or the construction of a coherent narrative: society run selfishly amuck through a disaffected, repetitive, come-soaked fuckscape. Ohmhole feels hamstrung by its dystopian influences, but lacks the creativity, imagery, and emotional pull of others who’ve travelled a similar ideological path. Instead of an original examination of the themes outlined in the book’s synopsis, we’re treated to an Idiocracy-like approach to sexual terminology, beaten to death through aggravating, white noise-like repetition of language and action. What results is something altogether inane that borders on infantile—Hayden wields sexuality as if he were a child discovering curse words for the first time, overusing them to ineffectiveness.
My criticisms are largely technical: Hayden’s language did nothing to paint this world as anything more than a simplistic—though potentially controversial—two-dimensional conceit. Though I suspect there are much larger ideas at stake in this work—issues to do with the prevalence of sexual criticism; the nature of unnecessary criticism towards an individual’s rights to sex, sexuality and privacy; and the need, in such matters, for social and governmental responsibility without oppression—they are buried beneath a shock-for-shock’s sake treatment of language that left me with little desire to unearth his ultimate intent.
While there is likely academic or educational merit to dissecting Hayden’s work, as a novel Ohmhole fails to inspire further conversation. Instead, the book’s exciting premise is sadly extinguished by its overcooked and ineffective technique, and obsessively high school-level diction.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Published: October 2011
Finally got around to it: January 2012
I am a little boy rummaging, drawer after drawer. And there are drugs here. So many. Sure enough, drawers full of boxes, piled high, free samples. Must be. And ohhhh, there’s the Demerol. Multidose glass vial: 50 milligrams per millilitre! That’s the strong stuff. Almost full. Now, the apparatus. Drawer full of syringes and needles, each cozy in its wrapper. I am literally chuckling with glee. I am pretending to be Mr. Hyde, or I’m not pretending. You’re fucked, I tell myself. But I’m still smiling. The accusatory voice has no power now. No mother, no father, anywhere. And look, a nice folded plastic bag. I start to stuff it. Halloween in Drugland. My mood is off the charts. Intense excitement, glee, power, triumph, and anticipation of the… oh yeah… shooting Demerol is just so nice. There is nothing like it. I once read that if there’s anything nicer in the universe, God saved it for himself.
That Marc Lewis is still alive, and has the remaining brain cells to accomplish all he has as a neuroscientist, is nothing short of a miracle. From his miserable teenage years interned in a New England boarding school, through university life during Berkley’s drug-addled 1970s, and crossing continents to Malay and Calcutta, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is an engrossing first-hand examination of addiction—an account of its power, its ability to rewire the brain through perceived physical necessity, and its very unforgiving nature.
Marc Lewis writes about drugs with a split personality; he approaches his life and his various travels into and out of the world of drugs with both a scientist’s respect for knowledge and fact, and a child’s wonderment and eagerness to experiment with everything he can get his hands on. His memoirs, as it were, are part psychedelic travelogue, part detailed-yet-accessible breakdown of each drug’s effect on the human body and mind.
The appeal of drugs, as Lewis describes, is at once mythic and chemical. The dangerous proposition of removing oneself from the frustrations and difficulties of a less than ideal existence, spiking dopamine levels past risk and into reward, is effectively broken down and explained:
Dopamine—the fuel of desire—is only one of four major neuromodulators. Each of the neuromodulators fuels the brain operations in its own particular way. But all four of them share two properties. First, they get released and used up all over the brain, not at specific locales. Second, each is produced by one specialized organ, a brain part designed to manufacture that one potent chemical. Instead of watering the flowers one by one, neuromodulator release is like a sprinkler system. That’s why neuromodulators initiate changes that are global, not local. Dopamine fuels attraction, focus, approach, and especially wanting and doing. Norepinephrine fuels perceptual alertness, arousal, excitement, and attention to sensory detail. Acetylcholine energizes all mental operations, consciousness, and thought itself. But the final neuromodulator, serotonin, is more complicated in its action. Serotonin does a lot of different things in a lot of different places, because there are many kinds of serotonin receptors, and they inhabit a great variety of neural nooks, staking out an intricate network.
In four parts, chronicling his first steps into drug use and abuse, through world travel, failed relationships and marital missteps, and ultimately a minor (but still deplorable) life of crime to fuel his ever-expanding narcotics addiction, Lewis’ approach is honest and without apology. He acknowledges his failings without sugar coating them; instead, he offers insight and analysis few who have struggled with the same demons would ever find themselves in a position to provide.
Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is an uncomfortable, but still captivating exploration into a life most of us would fear for reasons of health, safety, and the sake of family and friends. Experiencing Lewis’ life, knowing he comes out on top in the end, doesn’t negate the nervousness and uncertainty one feels reading his exploits and the risks taken for that one extra hit of whatever he was pumping into his veins at any given moment. His eventual success with career and family doesn’t make his breaking and entering and failing our of grad school any less disheartening, or the many times he falls off the wagon any less demoralizing.
There’s an element of “taking one for the team” that permeates Lewis’ work—an almost indescribable fascination one feels reading the combination of science and gratification devoid of reason, and the knowledge that such an experience could only come from a mind wired for the darkest trips into self satisfaction and pleasure seeking. That he manages to walk away from his past with only a scarred brain, but still a high-functioning brain, is incredible.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Published: January 2012
Geiger’s mind was sent reeling away from the dark forest, defying the vision’s gravity and seeking refuge beyond it. But what came before him was a floating curtain, and then, as the curtain parted, it revealed the long shelf carrying all his session books: the black binders, the hundreds of Joneses, the thousands of pages filled with strategies and methods, reactions and conclusions. Geiger could see the faces of his subjects, he could hear every epithet and plea ever uttered, every sound a human can make in fear or pain. Confronting him was a compendium of the darkest of man’s arts—and a garish portrait of a monster that now, for the first time, he recognized as himself.
Geiger: Information Retrieval specialist. Interrogator. A torturer of a kind; a man with a strict moral code—something that cannot necessarily be said of his contemporaries. Mark Allen Smith’s first novel, The Inquisitor is a brisk thriller that hedges its success on an unconventional protagonist with a mysterious past.
In the off-the-books world of information retrieval, Geiger is a known quantity on a very short list. He’s efficient. He gets what he needs, and he does it without bringing extensive physical harm to his subjects. Mental anguish however… that’s an issue for another day. Geiger gets the call when the Jones—the individual he is hired to withdraw information from—needs to be broken without leaving bodily evidence to be mopped up in the aftermath. He lives a restricted, Spartan lifestyle, and adheres to a personal code of ethics. His past is a mystery, even to himself, but his talents are without question. When a not-entirely-on-the-level case is offered to him, Geiger is forced to decide whether or not to deviate from his code and interrogate a child—a young pre-teen named Ezra. Should he refuse, the information retrieval will fall to another in his line of work—a notoriously blunt instrument named Dalton.
The Inquisitor doesn’t try to hide its hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold roots: Geiger, though violent and at times highly unstable, is our man on the inside, the good guy with the shady past whose sins—dark though they may be—are not beyond absolution. Smith isn’t interested in challenging us with a thoroughly detestable main character; he wants us to sympathize with and, in time, understand Geiger’s behaviour. His past, his motivation, and his abilities create a wholly sympathetic social outcast with precious few confidants in his closed-off world. Yes, he has certain unscrupulous connections and has done some unforgivable things in his career, but his code, which removes him from his role as interrogator and installs him as Ezra’s protector, is noble and unshakable.
While Geiger is certainly an intriguing, Jason Bourne-esque personality, the book’s remaining characters run the gamut from the hard-on-his-luck “best friend” and accomplice, to by-the-numbers mobsters and are-they-or-aren’t-they government agents, and one very off-kilter sister, whose presence provides the narrative with a certain amount of pathos. The most fascinating of the side characters, interestingly enough, is Geiger’s vile counterpart, Dalton. The pairing of the two in the book’s third act offers the story’s strongest character development. Dalton is what Geiger could be, were he to completely discard his code of ethics.
The Inquisitor is at times an uneven experience. While I appreciated the lean and energized narrative (with its obvious allusions to Wikileaks), the quick character turns—the willingness to abandon a career so dramatically when ethically challenged—left me feeling winded. It was as if an earlier novel developing Geiger’s modes and methods of operation had been written and discarded in favour of what at times feels more like the second chapter of a series, and not an introduction. Though his interaction with Ezra works to humanize Geiger, it feels as though we’ve missed out on an opportunity to further explore his interactions with other Information Retrieval specialists. Granted this could be done in the future with prequels or flashbacks, should Geiger become the star of his own series, but as a singular instalment I found myself more fascinated with the implications and details of his dark industry than with any late-in-the-game character revelations.
In spite of these reservations and a forced, Friday the 13th hand-out-of-the-water climax that falls into slightly comic territory, The Inquisitor is still an exciting page turner, and I’d love to know where Smith takes the character from here. I just hope the road to Geiger’s salvation is a little rockier and more challenging from here on out.