Thursday, October 25, 2012
100 Books #101 - Justin Robinson's MR. BLANK
Was Tobias Knight your favorite character in Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson's fiction, or did you at least wonder what it would be like to be him?
Did you dig X-Files but think it was kind of cheap that Mulder & Scully only had to deal with one freakshow at a time? And too much FBI red tape?
Do conspiracy theories make you horny, baby?
Then, brother, have I got the novel for you.
The title character in Mr. Blank makes Tobias Knight, quintuple agent, look like a monogamous pansy. As he tells us in the novel's exquisitely perfect opening sentence, "Every conspiracy needs a guy like me." The sad bit is, as he goes on to explain, he's that guy for every single conspiracy. And there's only so much of him to go around. So, he has established more false identities than any sane person could keep track of, each with its own email address, cell phone and contract, and contact within a secret organization; the Masons know him by one name, the Satanists by another, etc. Across conspiracies, though, he is at core the same guy: the go-to guy, a low-level initiate/enthusiast who is willing to be the gopher, delivery guy, purchasing agent, evidence hider, witness confuser, whatever dumb little task you need today, Worshipful Sir or Ma'am or Thingie.
The premise could work with any number of plots (har har). The temptation that could waylay it being just to watch him in action, which could be fun as the quotidian-for-him early pages establish; his to-do list (or lists, one for each identity/role) are quite entertaining. I was especially amused by bits like this one: "Commercial candy is allowed to have up to five rat droppings per ounce by law. What they don't say is what kind of rat droppings or whose job it is to put them there."
You get the idea.
So this could have turned into the kind of sprawling hot mess that the Illuminatus! Trilogy (clearly its primary inspiration) was, but Robinson was more interested in producing a piece of quality genre fiction/entertainment than in imparting his mystic-comic wisdom to us in a gigantic parable. I think. At any rate, he found a plot that worked, the good old "someone is trying to kill me and this stacked redhead I just happened to meet along the way" that's straight out of mid-century crime noir. Hey, why mess with perfection?
And this book is so close to genre-mashing perfection that it's almost painful to contemplate how it also kind of bothered me: there's a major sub-plot involving female body-image politics that I didn't quite like, pitting one conspiracy of Rubenesque, curvy women (the stacked redhead and her fuller-figured overladies, whom Mr. Blank refers to as "hippos" and worse) against another of stick-thin model-pushers (though bonus points for the neologism "ascetorexics"). Mr. Blank more or less comes down on the side of the former, mostly due to the presence at his side of their prettiest and smartest (Mina, whom he wants to "paint on the side of a bomber"), so I guess there's that, but still, focusing on that one characteristic of a woman -- her body, her shape -- still counts as objectification, whether you're turned on by it or not, guys. Ew.
If that kind of thing doesn't bother you*, or if it does but you're able to square your shoulders and march on and get past it and focus on all the good stuff, this is quite an enjoyable read. Fnord.
*And usually I'm of this camp, able to dismiss the odd quip about a female character's appearance or a gay character's clothing or whatever as just something that is missing the mark with me but that the author felt necessary to include to appeal to other readers. But here, it is very much front and center, with Mr. Blank all but smacking his lips over Mina on almost every page. What saves it is that she notices this, calls him on it, and occasionally delivers the kind of reprimand that leaves a mark. So that brings up a question for me that I'm not sure I have the answer to: does the presence of a strong and self-determined female character who refuses to be a sidekick justify or compensate adequately for the author's over-the-top rubbing of my readerly nose in all of this body-image crap? Like I said, I don't have an answer, so my annoyance is only mostly assuaged by the fact that everything else in this book was over-the-top awesome.