I enjoyed reading Motorman. I just want to get that out of the way, because the rest of this review is going to be very introspective and very weird and probably as much of an insight into the reviewer as an insight into the book. The issue with reviewing Motorman in a conventional way and adhering religiously to the format I've slowly tinkered with over the past four years is that Motorman itself resists conventional analysis a bit. It's a book that slips around chronologically as it examines the inner and outer contents of its main character's head, a book that trades more on feeling and atmosphere and weird, gooey tactile sensations than on any conventional plot or structure. There are points where the book seems to have an agenda and a point it wants to make about the interplay between the real and the artificial, and possibly the nature of things in general, but the narrative doesn't concern itself with making anything obvious. It just kind of lets the story about a four-hearted man trying to meet his mad scientist friend sink in and just kind of is.
It's certainly a book unlike many I have read. It's a unique experience, and while I enjoyed it, I'm not sure I could completely recommend it to people. I'm not sure I'd even recommend it to myself as much. But I did thoroughly enjoy it.
More, as always, below.
"However, when this building is filled with water, flatworms can swim in it."
- M.C. Escher
Motorman is the story of Moldenke. It's actually kind of a character study of Moldenke, as sometimes it is very hard to tell what takes place in Moldenke's head and what takes place outside of it. Moldenke lives in an apartment in Texaco City, his only friend being a mad scientist named Doctor Burnheart who communicates through letters. For somewhat inexplicable reasons, Moldenke is implanted with four sheep's hearts instead of a human heart and only has one working lung most times, as the other is gummed up by some kind of mysterious crud floating through the air in particles. The air in Moldenke's home city is so polluted the people have to breathe through gauze pads and keep their goggles on. The world is also so close to death that the planet is lit by multiple artificial suns that break apart every evening, and by artificial moons that break apart every daybreak.
Moldenke lives a fairly uncomplicated life, eating bugs from around his apartment and reading letters from Burnheart (whom he calls "Burny") about his work with another scientist known only as Eagleman. This life, however, is suddenly interrupted when the godlike ruler of Texaco City, a man named Bunce, calls Moldenke to tell him that he has certain tapes and Moldenke should play ball. When Moldenke refuses, Bunce proceeds to shut off his power and water and keep him prisoner, prompting Moldenke to flee the city. With seventy-two hours, Moldenke must navigate The Bottoms, the dangerous world outside Texaco City to meet with Burnheart and Eagleman and possibly help them fix the mess they are in. As the story progresses, it goes back and forth in time, as well, showing what Moldenke was like when he fought in the Mock War (before he sustained a minor fracture and lost all his feelings in said war), when he met his former girlfriend Cock Roberta, and his friendship with Burnheart. But Moldenke is pursued by the Jellymen, Bunce's weird automaton minions filled with Jelly, and he may not be able to complete the mission he's undertaken...
So first, the plot I just recapped above there? There isn't much more than that, and I'm not sure there really needs to be. Motorman isn't really a plot-driven book, it's kind of a bizarre allegory. Moldenke is kind of living an artificial existence and he and his cohorts are desperately trying to become real. However, this is hampered by Moldenke not actually knowing what is real-- Bunce only becomes interested in him because Moldenke may or may not have killed two of his artificial humans full of jelly, Moldenke's thought processes are replicated much in the same way as the book (slipping in and out of bizarre nostalgia and memory until the end, which posits Moldenke might not even have left his chair in the apartment at the beginning), and at least one character has their name change repeatedly. And artificial living seems to get in the way of the real, as well. The planet has more and more artificial moons show up every day, because a single artificial moon doesn't work well enough and will shatter fairly quickly. Moldenke doesn't fall in love, but is given a girlfriend after he peels a scab off of his "crank", a scab gained from pulling too hard. There's even a scene in the end where the last living person of color has been stuffed and mounted, and turns out to just be little more than a dummy. Bunce and the people of the city try harder and harder to develop coping mechanisms from artifice, but it doesn't stop the world from getting in.
Another place where this is evident is in the scene where Moldenke is mere inches away from Burnheart and Eagleman on a boat, only for his attempt to reach them to be thwarted by a crowd nearly rioting because they want to watch the film. In the end, he winds up running away from an overflowing jelly river and trying to find something to float in that he can paddle around. This also causes an interesting interpretation of the ending: Moldenke is floating around on the Jelly, and his mind slips back to a safe place where there was no risk or danger to him: The darkened apartment where Bunce held sway. It reminds me a little of a weird dichotomy brought up in the Wayside School books, actually. In the second book of that series, a kid named Myron is offered a choice: He can either be safe, or he can be free. If he's safe, rules protect him and keep him connected to the world, but he can be ordered around. If he's free, no one can tell him what to do, but there's no connection to anything any more. Moldenke has the same choice, a choice between the safety of his powerless apartment-- a known quantity that can be controlled but will in fact control him, and the unusual bug-infested anarchy of The Bottoms, something repeatedly referred to as dangerous but with the promise of freedom and perhaps the aid of the only two people who can fix the world and bring it back to reality.
And there's also the curious nature of Moldenke's relationship with others. Doctor Burnheart calls him "Dinky" all the time and seems to belittle him even as he tries to help him. But he also seems willing to aid in the control over Moldenke's life. The one time Moldenke doesn't seem easily led is when he finally quits his job as an insect taster because he regains some of his feelings (feelings taken from him in the Mock War). Now, these feelings are immediately lost again, but it's an important moment of agency in a world that's basically more or less a bunch of abstract puppets in a dystopia**. And, in the end, it's Moldenke's inability to break free of his own delusions and coping mechanisms (stonepicks, fantasies, nostalgia, memory) that leaves him stranded in a world that is slowly being destroyed due to its increasingly stupid ideas on how to slow the eventual collapse.
And all of this, upon reflection, does speak to me. As someone who came out of a bad time in their life with agoraphobia and anxiety, I spend a lot of time parked in front of my own artificial system and artifical sun to calm myself and slow the collapse of my mental and physical faculties. I find myself stuck in a chair and reliving old memories to help soothe my head and keep myself running. My lungs are full of crap. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it, I found moments of empathy overall throughout the work, moments that helped tie me into the storyline of a bug-eating four-hearted mutant and his quest to resolve his own existence into something more real. Maybe I just needed to feel the book out.
You may get something different out of it. I certainly won't dissuade you from reading it, and it's an unusual read full of odd viscera and slime. I wouldn't say that this is something people should rush out and get, but it's something I don't regret reading, and it certainly interested me enough to get three paragraphs out. Maybe next time I decide to get all analytical and navel-gazey, I'll post more quotes. Either way, I didn't regret reading it. Hopefully, you won't either.
And please, remember the goggles. They do help, after all.
- The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
- Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh
- Luminous Chaos by Jean Cristophe Valtat
- The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore
AND MANY OTHERS
*Abstract Puppet Dystopia is now either a JRPG or anime I want to see made. Get on that, people.