Sunday, January 18, 2015

Going Going Gone


            I really shouldn't have read this book. Not because it's bad, or because it's disturbing-- it's a little disturbing, but not in a bad way. No, I really shouldn't have read Going Going Gone because it is in fact the last book in a six book sequence known as the "Dryco novels". Going Going Gone is actually the book that more or less slams the door on the entire universe, and kind of reveals plot details for some of the goings-on in the rest of the series. In fact, the book ends with a "where are they now" look at every character in the universe Jack Womack created and how their lives have changed after the events of the book, sort of like a trans-universal version of The Wire's closing moments. 

                 That said, a lot of the questions I had as I was reading and issues I had with the book could probably be chalked up to not quite understanding the world I was dropped into, and while I enjoyed the book enough on its own, I have a feeling a lot of the points where I thought it wasn't going anywhere or that it was spiraling off on odd tangents is probably a way to tie up the few loose ends Womack left in the previous five books' worth of dystopian black comedy. It's hard to tell what was there to shut the door on Dryco and what was actually a thing in the book that perhaps should have been better thought out.

                 In the end, though, Going Going Gone is a hilarious and unusual novel. It's like very few things I've read (a few books with invented languages and shorter Pynchon books come to mind), it's kinda twisted, and it features a fast-approaching and most likely prophetic version of the town and indeed the neighborhood where I grew up. I wouldn't make this my first Jack Womack novel, but it's immensely readable and, if you're in the mood for a shaggy-dog story involving psychedelic drugs and government conspiracies, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

More, as always, below. 

"The garden has many paths"
- Eulalia "Eulie" Bax

                      Going Going Gone begins with Walter Bullitt on a drug trip. Bullitt is a freelancer with the US government, a man who guinea-pigs psychedelic compounds on himself before the government (either on their own or through Walter) disseminates them to the populace in controlled psychological experiments. His pay is good, he doesn't hate his bosses, and it keeps his life well-stocked with obscure jazz and gospel records. The only two things that seem particularly wrong with Walter's life are that some new government spooks are leaning on him to interfere with Bobby Kennedy's upcoming election, and that his apartment is infested with ghosts that do nothing but alternate between crying out his name and crying for help. The second thing is a little less urgent, of course, as it has no effect on Walter's life other than annoying him from time to time until he starts singing or playing records to drown them out.

                       Unfortunately, the apartment ghosts are the reason Walter gets dragged out of Max's Kansas City one night by two oddly-dressed women: Eulie, a petite little woman with a bizarre vocabulary; and her partner Chlojo, a massive terminatrix built like a brick house and with about half the subtlety and tact of same. The two of them confirm that Walter is indeed haunted by something bizarre, but leave without answering too many questions after that confirmation, leaving behind only their impossibly potent weed from "Secaucus". Something very strange is going on, and Walter's apartment is only a small facet of something threatening to engulf all of existence in its wake. 

                        In his attempt to find out finally and definitively what is going on in his life, Walter will run drugs to a cult that believes in maximizing potential via physical abuse, hang out with the black-sheep record-head son of the Kennedy family, risk run-ins with the more brutal members of the NYPD, and explore cultures right under his nose that he never even knew existed. But all of this may not be enough to save Walter and his friends. After all, how can one stop reality from being erased?

                          In Going Going Gone, the thing that works best in the book's favor is Womack's use of language. Walter Bullitt narrates the entire novel in first-person, rambling through impenetrable sentence after impenetrable sentence in what has to be at least partially-invented hipster slang. As the reader continues, however, it helps them get better entrenched in Walter's world. It's a kind of immersion therapy for a fictional universe-- get the reader to try and find their head in the bizarre language terms, and then introduce them to the world of the work while they slowly adapt to the utterly bizarre language patterns and thoughts. It's an easy way to get the readers to connect, though the legions of people trying to imitate pioneers in the field like Irvine Welsh, Anthony Burgess, and Robert Heinlein would suggest that perhaps it is not as easy to pull off as it looks. Womack does manage, though, creating something accessible but still strange and impenetrable, with phrases like "Okay, but I'm going to want to hear the Once Upon A Time.", among others. It's unique. And the way various groups (like the broken-English gibberish-spouting cult of Dynamism) pervert the language further just adds to it. 

                     Dovetailing nicely with the language is the setting and the way the world is designed. When reading it, I felt like something was definitely off about Walter's world, but I never fully grasped what that was until afterward. Not just the slang, but the entirety of the world. Womack doesn't directly come out and state anything. He has this habit in a lot of its books, but when paired with the slang, it becomes something subtle. Almost missable. In fact, I almost did miss it, had someone else who read the books not pointed it out to me. And honestly, this is the way worldbuilding should be done. Not in infodump after infodump, not in bald exposition...the people in the story have no reason to believe the worlds and cultures around them are different, so they have no reason to explain their world to anyone. This is something Samantha Shannon failed to grasp with her book The Bone Season. So. In the world of Going Going Gone, the Civil War never happened, and African Americans are marginalized. You get glimpses of this in the way Walter collects records with ad copy bearing words like "The famous race record!", and the way people react to Chlojo, who is Jamaican/Swedish, but overall it doesn't make itself known. Similarly, despite the novel taking place in 1968, television seems not to have caught on at all. But none of this is revealed out in the open. 

                     And, for once, I like that. I also like a narrator who isn't part of the action per se but instead is buffeted around by it all, finding things out when the reader does. Too many times I've read conspiracy lit only for the hero to finally figure out everything, or have some agency in what he does. I like it when they're just as much in the dark as I have, and Walter, while clueless, presents a narrator who actually seems smart enough to figure things out, but has trouble getting all the pieces to meet in his head. The events at the end of the book, as near as I can tell, happen simply because there was too much going on for everyone to keep track of, and so in trying to solve the various mysteries, instead things get solved in their own weird way and existence is a much, much, different place for it. It makes the conspiracies and problems actually seem as big as they're made out to be-- which, in a genre such as this one, is a problem a lot of writers seem to have. No matter how monumental the problem, the stakes seem low. 

                     But there are two major problems in the work. The first is that this is Womack's way of slamming the door on his universe and writing it into our own. While this works really well, it also relies on the reader having read the previous books. It also kind of turns Walter into a secondary protagonist in his own novel, as in terms of the greater universe he matters significantly less than he would if Going Going Gone stood alone. And while the book at first stands alone, the sudden detour into the future and erasure of all reality within the fictive universe (followed by the alternate fates of literally every major character in the Dryco series*) means that its foundation is shaky at best. As someone who has now read two books in the series, I like how there's a nice chronological bookend: The first book in the series. Random Acts of Senseless Violence, begins with conventional speak and descends into dense slang and vernacular. Going Going Gone starts out with dense slang, and by the end has moved back into conventional speech.

                       The second problem is that the story is a shaggy-dog story that even Thomas Pynchon couldn't match. The characters' actions don't really have as much bearing on the plot as they think: James Kennedy gets screwed by his family in a manner that barely involves Walter, reality still gets rewritten, and literally every conspiracy was actually kind of a red herring. Now, this plot makes me laugh, and a lot of the sense of humor in the book is something I enjoy. But there are a lot of people who might be turned off by the ending, especially if they haven't read a book of Womack's before and don't have much investment in that second "future" universe of New New York. 

                      But in the end, while I can't recommend the book, I did enjoy it. There are some great moments, like Walter contemplating feeding a liquid psychological warfare compound to a cult, the constant slang-speak between Walter and his best friend/ex-girlfriend Trish, and the meetings of the Personality Dynamos, whose leader spouts gibberish about jewels buried in feces and seems to use enlightenment as an excuse to beat up his followers. I'd say find this one, but find it after you read other works of Womack's. While the books aren't directly connected, Going Going Gone is definitively the last one in the series. 

                       Also, many props for having Eulie Bax hail from Golf Island, Maplewood, New Jersey. Even if it caused me some wistful nostalgia when I realized she lived right on the same street I used to, or at least up the street from where I grew up. 

- Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack
- Motorman by David Ohle


*Including Lola "Boob" Hart, which made me breathe a sigh of relief. Random Acts of Senseless Violence was a nasty, wrenching you will all find out next week...

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