"You're an idiot, Jack."
-Numerous characters throughout the work
Because much in the way last month's author, Peter Straub, got it, Michael Marshall Smith gets it. There's an air of uncertainty in Spares that isn't present in a lot of other works. It's one of the few books that actually makes it unsure if anyone wins. Even after the climax, I was left wondering exactly who'd come out ahead. But while it's bleak, there are small glimmers of good things here and there, and it's those few glimmers that kept me reading. It's not a ride I can recommend all the time, but it's a brilliantly-written book and deserves to be spoken of in the same tones we reserve for grandmasters of the genre. Especially because about a quarter of those men and women are more important than good. This is a book that's well worth the ride, and I hope people read it one of these days.
More, as always, below.
Jack Randall is a loser. This is the first thing we know about Spares, and this is the first thing we know about Jack Randall. In an effort to do the right thing, Jack, with the help of a helper bot named Ratchet, fled his do-nothing job at a "spare farm" where he watched over rich people's clones as they awaited surgical procedures. He is now seeking a way out of his desperate situation with seven (okay, six and a half) clones in tow in the only place he can: New Richmond, Virginia. Formerly a flying mega-mall, New Richmond is now a sprawling megalopolis where every level under one hundred is a crime-ridden cyberpunk hole, and every level above that the people just get better at hiding it. Jack hopes he can just grab a bunch of money for a high-tech chip he stole from the spare farm, buy a truck and supplies, and hightail it out of New Richmond so they can hide out from the corporation that owns the farm.
Except it's not that simple. You see, while Jack's out getting the money and calling in the proper favors, someone whacks his oldest friend and kidnaps most of the spares. Someone else put a hit out for Jack, an embarrassingly low hit, but just enough to get his attention. And Jack Randall is faced with a choice: Either he gets the truck and bolts from Richmond, which would be the smart thing to do, or he takes the first step in navigating a complex and unnerving web of lies, deceit, twisted deals, and grisly murder.
Jack Randall is a lot of things. Smart was never exactly one of them. But the trail will lead him interesting places...from former cases he worked as a cop to former battlefields as a soldier, and in the end, it leads Jack to tangle with forces and make decisions that are far out of his hands or any kind of control anyone could possibly expect. Before the end, a lot of people will die. A lot more will wish they were. And Jack Randall will make a lot of stupid choices. Thankfully, for once, Jack Randall's done being smart. And that might just save him.
Before I start in as I usually do and break this down by the numbers, I just wanted to discuss a kind of plot. I call it the "it got worse" plot. Page by page, bit by bit, the noose tightens around the heroes as their situation gets worse, from page to page or even from chapter to chapter. This is supposed to end in some kind of a cathartic moment as everything blows up in the end, a release for all that tension and all that downward motion. But that's what's supposed to happen. Most people go off the other end of the path and just have things get tedious as they make their way to a conclusion that in no way pays off the reader for flagellating them for page after page. And while there is a time and place for this kind of brutal depressive narrative, I expect there to be glimmers of hope to lead me on. Like in "Clockwork Girl". One of the best ways someone handled the "it got worse" plot was in Leviathan's Wake, where the protagonists never seemed to be in a situation that they couldn't get themselves out of in some way, shape, or form.
The reason I bring up this kind of plotting is that Michael Marshall Smith has created a brutal, nasty world. It says something that most of the named characters you meet get killed off in the first two chapters and the book only gets nastier from there. He gets the plot right. Jack's situation is never completely hopeless, as he's usually offered a choice between something that will make his life much easier, and something that will advance his needs and with them bring him closer to the people responsible. Jack could get out of this at any time and walk away, head off into the sunset with his friends and not bother with anything else. Indeed, he doesn't need to continue the search. He could go off and nothing would change-- the world would move on, he'd be the exact same amount of depressed, and in the end, he'd eventually drink away all the memories. Until the point where it's too late, Jack has the choice of an easier life, and it's to Michael Marshall Smith's credit that yes, while Jack could do this, he doesn't, and more to the point, we don't want him to. Smith makes us want the plot to get darker, for Jack's outs to vanish one by one by one, and coupled with the dark, twisting plot where it takes to the final page to finally make it out, Spares is expertly plotted.
The character of Jack is also a rarity for a lot of books I've read, and that really should not be the case. Jack is the kind of character whose thought processes actually make sense, whose actions can be traced directly back to him. Yes, there is a certain degree of bad luck throughout-- Jack never seems to be there when the bad guys bust down the door, he's following a step and a half behind everyone-- but Jack is the best example of agency I've read this year. He makes a choice to start investigating the death of his friend and the kidnapping of the Spares. He makes a choice to shake down the gangster in the upper floors of New Richmond. Everything Jack does is a choice he makes, and in the end, when he's facing down the odds (and the bullets), it's his consequences and reactions that led him to this place. And the book does try hard to paint him as unsympathetic. He's violent, a loose cannon, he even says as much to everyone who'll listen. But there's a sense about him. He's not that simple. His trauma is handled in a fairly realistic way. He has some serious flaws (mostly related to women), and while his flaws come back to bite him, I couldn't help but feel bad for the bastard. Even at his worst, I wanted him to pick himself up and do what needed to be done. In the end, there's a sense of relief that what happened is, in fact, the end of it. That there's no more. Because by then, Jack and the reader have been through a lot, and they both deserve a rest. But in the end, it's good to have someone who makes their choices instead of being pulled along because the plot says so*.
But there's still an issue with the book, and it's a glaring one. In the third section, in the part where everything's supposed to be ramped up, in the section where this is all supposed to come to a head, things suddenly slow down. There's a reason, as the exposition we've been waiting an entire book to read is finally revealed, but seriously, they could have sped it up a little. Given us glimpses of The Gap and the reveal that was supposed to happen before that. Something. Instead, there's a section that drags right before it sends us howling into the explosive (literally) conclusion and the ultimate denouement. And this? This is a bad habit. It kills the pacing dead, and that it then also kills a few named characters dead with it just drives the point home. While the story picks up, it never completely recovers from the massive hallucinatory yet necessary interlude.
In the end, though, you should already be reading this book. Halfway through the review, you should have gone out and bought it. It's a twisted, brutal work with a main character that needs therapy more than he needs to solve a mystery, but I loved every second of it. That this book was optioned for a film and then discarded for some stupid far-future flop** just shows how much it needs people to remember that it exists. Michael Marshall Smith is an amazing author, and this, which was his US debut, is a powerhouse of a book that'd make connoisseurs of the most brutal of its genre stop in their tracks with the sheer gut-wrenching fury.
I leave you with one last quote, relevant to the material and that I've been waiting to use for years now:
A man can run and run for year after year until he realizes that what he's running from is hisself. A man's got to do what a man's got to do, and there ain't no sense in runnin'. Now you gotta turn, and you gotta fight, and you gotta hold your head up high.
- John Cleese as "The Southerner", Monty Python's Flying Circus
- One of Us by Michael Marshall Smith
- The Riptide Ultra-Glide by Tim Dorsey
- Insane City by Dave Barry
- Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad
*Isn't that right, George RR Martin?
**It's highly speculated that they dropped a film adaptation for this and mutated it into The Island, the fuckers.