Tuesday, May 13, 2014

One of Us

"Sorry. Ambient light projector." 
- God

                     I should have known a book by Michael Marshall Smith wouldn't play straight with its own premise. Walking into this, I was ready to talk about a book that was just some kind of dark, twisted Noir story about a man who deals in memories and dreams for a living. I was ready to tell you that this was a slow, brutal burner about things going slowly wrong for Hap Thompson as he tried to dig himself further and further out of a slowly-tightening net. And I was actually surprised. But the words of a friend of mine, one I'll call Greg for the time being, came to me. And while they're not exactly the way they're supposed to be, I'll paraphrase them here:

"What part of 'written by (Michael Marshall Smith) didn't you understand?*"

              It's honestly a mistake I've made before. I made it with Darren Shan when I read Hell's Horizon, a book that started as kind of straightforward (if there can be such a thing) noir and then plunged into sacrifice rituals, blind priests, torture, and lesbian sex. I made it with Joe Hill when NOS4A2 seemed like it was just going to be a Stephen King book written by Joe Hill, not a book by the same mad scientist who brought us Heart Shaped Box and Horns. And I made it again with One of Us. Because halfway through the book, most of the major mysteries are connected and explained. But their answers just lead to a bigger mystery. 

               And it is in this bigger mystery that One of Us finds its most compelling cases. And quite compelling it is. It's not as brutal and twisted as Spares, but it exists in a space all its own, a space where what's going on is never quite what's going on, and it's well worth the time and effort of tracking it down to read it.

Why? Well, read on...

                One of Us is the story of Hap Thompson. Hap works as a REMTemp, a quasi-legal profession that involves having peoples' dreams for them in exchange for money. The more dreams he can have in a night, the better he gets paid. Hap is so good at his job that he gets blackmailed into another even less-legal job: Working as a memory courier. When people need to stash a memory, they take it to Hap, and Hap stores it for a time. And when he's offered a side job that would make him more than he usually makes over the course of several nights, he absolutely leaps at the chance and holds the memory of a woman's first-degree murder. Of a cop. After which, people immediately stop returning his calls.

And then things get weird.

                  Seemingly unstoppable men in gray suits begin tailing Hap and his friends, looking to bring Hap somewhere. They don't seem to have a preference between "dead" or "alive". A cop with a burning desire to bring Hap in suddenly shows up with a three year old warrant for Hap's arrest, a warrant Hap was sure was out of the system. His ex-employer puts a hit out on him, with the contract picked up by his ex-wife. And an omniscient man who uses an ambient light projector to disorient people and obscure his face pops up and claims he's god...

                     There's a conspiracy going on and Hap is somewhere in the middle of it, not just for the memory he's carrying, but because of his part in something much, much bigger. Something involving aliens. Something involving the man who keeps claiming he's God. Something involving Hap's past. And all of it is coming to a head. If Hap wants to save himself, if he wants to save his friends and family, he's going to have to figure out how to recall the things he's blocked. Because it's what you don't remember that's going to hurt you the most.

             The thing that sets One of Us apart from something like Spares is that where Spares kept its depravity hidden for later in the book and let character agency drive the story, One of Us doesn't bother with as much agency, but provides a good reason for such a thing-- people are being led around by their memories. It's a nice excuse, even if it is kind of cheating. And introducing the concept of God or a possible godlike being also helps to soften the blow that people are doing things more for the plot than anything else. Another thing that makes the plot interesting and sets the book apart from Spares is that by halfway through the book, the conspiracy's already well laid-out. It's just a matter of tracking down the plot, and there's a bigger reveal halfway through. I like this approach. It's like he knew the plot was fairly easy to figure out, so he started to solve it about a hundred fifty pages in and reveal there was something even darker and stranger going on. It functions like Douglas Adams' theory of the universe: Once someone figures it all out, it'll be replaced with something far stranger than we ever thought possible.

                 Second, I would like to congratulate Smith on his characters again. One of Us takes place not in the prime of these peoples' lives, but well after that...the small-time hood already pulled his one last job and is looking for a steady paycheck. The outlaw hacker plays for his own side but seems to have trouble telling exactly which side he's playing anyway. The hired killer just wants to get out of the terrible business she's in. And the corporate influence and corruption are rampant. One of Us takes place well after those last bastions of hope cyberpunk novels have were extinguished, and for most of the book, one of the conspirators is placed highly in a barely-legal corporation and manages to be a huge thorn in the side of the cast for almost the entire time he's in there, just because he owns most of everything. But there's a veneer of age to the whole thing...these are young peoples' roles, but played by people who are no longer as young or as fast on the trigger as they used to be. At this point, the cast is mainly looking for closure and a way out of their increasingly desperate situation, especially Hap and Helena, the main character and the hired killer. And this actually works well for the book. 

                    Third, there is the empathy. Even the appliances are characters Smith manages to empathize with at least a little bit, and it goes a long way towards selling the book for me. The emotions are tangible things, and one of the sequences that really broke me up was Hap telling the AI appliances of a murder victim that yes, their owner or his wife would be back soon to take care of them and that they shouldn't worry. It's a character-establishing moment, and as someone who once saw The Brave Little Toaster, it hit me right where it hurt. Another nice touch was Hap's war with his trash compactor (he threw away his coffeemaker and it was having a romance). The little scenes with the appliances, ironically, help to humanize the main character and make us sympathize with him a little better. 

                    But there is one issue I'd like to address here, and it's the issue of bringing God right into the book. Even if he's not quite who he says he is, even if he's some kind of alien, the supernatural touches don't quite work or fit in the story. This is a story that works best when it's grounded, or at least, is strongest when it's grounded, and when it flies off in separate directions, it doesn't work nearly as well. There are moments where it reaches a point close to cohesion, but it never goes all the way there. And in the end, that's the problem...the book is best when it's grounded, but the flights into unreality aren't telegraphed enough and it comes out of nowhere. I like being blindsided, but I'd like the plot to follow its internal logic from one moment to the next and not just pull everything out its hind end. It's how I tell I'm not reading something like Ulysses. And the book doesn't seem to do as much as it could with its premise. Yes, it's about memories and holding on to them, but somehow it completely abandons the premise of holding someone else's memories to play around with ghosts and aliens and the like. 

                      In the end, though, One of Us is worth a read. It's an interesting mystery with some good metaphysical components and a very strange conspiracy story. It's well worth the time and price of admission, though unlike Spares by the same author, I'd have to say taking this one out of the library or borrowing it from someone else would be a better idea. But find it. Michael Marshall Smith's an amazing author, and you could do worse for a book where God is actually a character. 

- The Riptide Ultraglide by Tim Dorsey
- Insane City by Dave Barry
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
- The Black Opera by Mary Gentle
*In truth, and I'm pretty sure the friend in question doesn't read this blog, the exact quote was "What part of 'written and directed by Matthew Bright' didn't you understand?" when I decided to watch Freeway with a few friends. My answer was "I know, I know..." but in truth I didn't.

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