Saturday, May 2, 2015

Nuklear Age


        There are some very rare instances where I cannot actually reveal why I like a book so much. It's annoying, it's true. Private Midnight was a book like that. There are books out there that, to explain the reason I love it so much, would ruin the beautiful bounty the book has in store. But if I tell you guys too little, then I'm not doing my job as a reviewer*. So I have to give something away. 

                     I suppose I'll just frame it like this. This is a book where the charms are not immediately obvious. It rewards careful reading, and at some point you'll either start to figure out what's going on, or you'll get annoyed and leave it be. Yes, it's a strange, kind of silly story about superheroes. Yes, it kind of goes for unsympathetic comedy. But if you're patient with it, and you stick with the concept, then it's rewarding in ways that few novels, few concepts, hell, few pieces of media hit you.

                But if it doesn't draw you in, if you don't start to wonder about what's going on, if it doesn't "click" for you, you can walk away no problems. I'm not going to call this flawless, I know better. Nor am I going to insist, no matter how much I want to, that you read this all the way to the end. This is not a book that works when forced on the unwilling, and I'm pretty sure that's why it was self-published in all its printings. It's been said that you can write for an audience or write for yourself and hope an audience finds you. With Nuklear Age, Brian Clevinger clearly did the latter. Hopefully, it works for you.

More, as always, below. 

"How do you make God laugh?"
"You make a plan"
- Doctor Veronica Menace

                  Nuklear Age starts with Nuklear Man. The golden guardian of Metroville is introduced mid-destructive battle with his partner in crime-fighting Atomik Lad against the robotic menace calling itself Mechanikill. With the killer robot dispatched, Nuklear Man receives a birthday card from his father, and the two heroes venture off to get themselves a free birthday cake at a local restaurant, along with lunch. On the way, they're met by fellow hero the Iron Scotsman, fight a miniature civilization formed from incredibly old cheese, and discover the secret ingredient to the leading brand of breakfast serial. The story follows them from vignette to vignette as they fight villains, argue over the location of a sushi place, and interact with various people in Metroville. 

              The book continues like this, interweaving vignettes about the heroes' life in Metroville with battles against giant crabs and ineffectual supervillains, but slowly and surely, a thread begins to emerge. Things have happened in the past. Doctor Genius over at the Uberdyne research institute seems a little disinterested in heroes other than their apparent potential as her research subjects. And what really happened when the mobster known as The Dragon tried to take over the city in the event known as Dragon's Strike? As the story begins to emerge, things start to come together in more and more intricate ways. And I wouldn't dare spoil what happens after that. This is, after all, a book from someone who knows how to weave a story together from dumb jokes, and it's the kind of story he weaves that's part of the fun. 

             The thing I like most about the book, though, more than the jokes that don't always land, is the way Clevinger uses setting. There's an interesting concept people explore in video games these days with familiarity. Coming back to places repeatedly and getting a feel for them helps get one into the story and really connect with it. For instance, the bar in Dishonored, with its various patrons, becomes almost like a home within the game world. It gives people a setting. People they meet. Then, when things happen to these people, it provides the emotional priming necessary to cause the reader to react. When it's done right, then it can cause incredible moments in fiction**. Through various vignettes in Metroville, Clevinger creates a sense of a setting the reader knows. The episodic way the story is told, with its repeating locations and characters, gives an excellent image of Metroville and its constantly-beleaguered inhabitants.  And, when those episodes start coming together in unexpected ways, they follow on the previous chapters and create something newer and more interesting. 

             Actually, the episodic nature allows Clevinger to explore his characters more, too. By dividing the book up into "issues", each one building on the story before but remaining kind of self-contained. While one chapter may spend its time with Nuke and Atomik Lad in their underground silo, it creates a relationship that builds from those moments into later chapters of the work and helps explore that a little more. By organizing the chapters in this way, Clevinger can spend time having character moments without having to worry about the narrative thread the way a completely linear, non-episodic novel wouldn't be able to. Even from the opening ten issues, there's a sense that these characters, no matter how silly, have pasts and backstories and are actually people outside of how they're used. 

            And this actually touches on something interesting. Clevinger is not really a literary author. He was known back in the day for his webcomic 8-Bit Theater, an epic comic fantasy told using sprites from Final Fantasy. These days, he writes the comic Atomic Robo. Nuklear Age is his only novel, and it's told not in a very narrative style, but in one that's meant to be more like comics, tracing their history from goofy golden-age titles to present day, with the storylines growing and changing based on that. The result is a novel that actually does character and plotline better, and knows its own pacing, because it's not trying to be a novel. Compare something like this to a book where the writer is steeped in the conventions and ideas of novel writing, and you'll find a dearth of kinetic prose and some definite points where things hit a narrative lull. By not thinking in the same way as someone whose main discipline is literature, Clevinger found a way to address themes better than if the book had been written in regular prose.

            Now, the book is not without its faults. Since it's a self-published novel, it runs into a lot of typos, and it appears that several things were put in using the find-replace feature, as the names come up as "Iron: Battlesuit" and "Evil: Console", which I'm not sure was done on purpose or just a quirk of the writing/editing process. 

           But as someone who's read Dhalgren, House of Leaves, and The Stars My Destination, I don't really have any place to judge on the subject of text formatting,

             Nuklear Age is an amazing book, and one that's definitely worth tracking down. I wish I could tell you more about how amazing, and about my favorite part, and about where the quote I used as the pull comes from, but no. As I said, this is a book where you have to experience most of it for yourself. So find this. Borrow it if you have to. If you can make it through the first ten issues, then hopefully you'll make it further. Hopefully, you'll make it to the end. 

Hopefully, you'll make it to the punchline. 

- Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

- The Damnation Game by Clive Barker

*Like I've been doing that much here anyway. Stupid compensated gigs. 
** When it's done wrong, please see Fallout 3

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