Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Justin Robinson's EVERYMAN

I mostly know of Justin Robinson as a cleverly goofy writer of fun stuff like his Mr. Blank books and City of Devils -- imaginative, occasionally silly romps that take an entertaining premise and run buck-wild with it.* I only vaguely knew that he wrote more traditional genre fiction, too, with a bent towards horror.

What I didn't know was that when he does so, if Everyman is anything to go by, he achieves even more impressive results.

Everyman goes on my virtual shelves alongside the works of Tony Burgess (Pontypool Changes Everything, The N-Body Problem), Ben Marcus (The Flame Alphabet) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One).** What do these have in common? They're ostensibly horror, but they transcend the genre in various amazing ways.

Superficially, Everyman is treading through Tim Powers territory, and I don't just say this because it so lovingly traces its way through the geography of Los Angeles. Its monsters (well, at least one of them) would be at home in a Powers novel, as would its depiction of the warm and happy but doomed marriage at the heart of its narrative, and it has chills similar to those that Powers occasionally offers, but Everyman has emotional beats and trappings that are entirely its own thing.

The book can be read as an extended ad absurdam metaphor for identity theft; its antagonist, Ian, can do so with frightening completeness, just by rooting out what thing among all of a person's possessions actually carries the most of his victim's emotional identification and stealing it. Possession of this possession allows him to mimic the person so completely that even those closest to the victim believe that Ian is the real person and their loved one is a bad and terrifying imposter -- even if both of them are in the room.

The victim is quickly expelled from his paradise, and finds that not only those who know him or her, but everyone, reacts to him or her with a deep lizard-brain level of hostility.

Such happens to our first protagonist, David, in the first act, and we spend a lot of time with him as his new unreality sinks in. He is suddenly friendless, homeless, loveless -- his own mother, his friends and neighbors, even, most importantly, his truly beloved wife, Sophie (who winds up the real hero of this novel in lots of poignant -- and kickass -- ways) threaten violence or law enforcement involvement at the very sight of him. This material is every bit as gut-wrenching as you might expect, but never strays into melodrama, remaining merely deeply effective, and eventually, quite Kafkaesque.***

And then things get bad.

Ian's power works in weird and grotesque ways, ways that Robinson spent a lot of time and effort reasoning out (again, in a very Tim Powers way that I can't applaud enough. Yes, it's supernatural/magical, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be internally logical!). Ian's victims don't just wind up lonely and homeless: there is a far sadder, weirder and grosser fate awaiting them. And their chosen objects. Yuck.

I am seriously impressed.

*And as a hilariously snarky lover of television and movies of questionable quality, which he loves (?) to share with us over at The Satellite Show.

**I suppose Doris Lessing belongs there, too, but I've only read The Fifth Child and don't want to read any more as a result.

***I mean, really, is anything more Kafkaesque than a well-constructed doppelganger story? To be truly Kafkaesque I suppose our heroes would have to have gotten tangled up in the justice system's red tape, but still.

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