Another review from The New York Review of Science Fiction. It appeared in issue 259, March 2010. I think I was expected to like Alexander Jablokov’s return to science fiction (indeed I expected to like it), but, alas. And coincidence or not, I’ve not been asked to review for the NYRSF since.
I love jigsaws. Every individual piece has a place, every piece connects with two or three others, and there are no pieces left over. And the whole thing is static in time, the only temporal dimension is dictated by the order in which one places the pieces.
The jigsaw is an excellent puzzle, but it is not necessarily a good model for a puzzle novel. Unfortunately, the new novel by Alexander Jablokov, his first in just over ten years, is just that. Every character is a piece of the puzzle. Every character connects with two or three other characters. Gather all the characters in the correct position and the whole puzzle is solved. And it is timeless, the only thing that changes over time is the order in which Jablokov picks up a character/piece and either fits it into position or discards it for the moment. And you know that every character discarded earlier in the novel will be picked up again later and slotted into precisely that part of the puzzle reserved for them.
It makes for a satisfying intellectual game, neat, precisely honed, and yet strangely bloodless for something that contains so many severed heads.
The story opens when Bernal Haydon-Rumi finds a message from his eccentric employer in a cowboy boot. Muriel Inglis, his wealthy, elderly employer is, we are told, prone to such methods of communication: it is our cue, right on page one, to expect a comedy of oddball characters, none of whom will ever choose a conventional or sensible way to do anything. Of course, if the characters didn’t all favour whacky behaviour, there probably wouldn’t be much of a story to tell, but that is, perhaps, beside the point.
Moments after Bernal receives this message, he sees Muriel running away from the house, but when he tries to chase after her, he gets knocked out by a handy passing burglar. When he comes to, Muriel has disappeared, and the rest of the novel involves his efforts to find out what happened to her. It is a quest that will involve, in no particular order, an experimental interplanetary explorer currently running wild through the Massachusetts countryside; an ex-cop named Charis; a serial killer who specialises in cutting the heads of his victims; a car-repairwoman, Patricia, who is involved in an abusive relationship with her boss; Ignacio, the boss, who is also involved in a variety of illegal deals; a bunch of conspiracy theorists; a spiritual healer and amateur astronomer who used to work for a cryogenics company; the spiritual healer’s sexy neighbour who spies on him because she holds him responsible for her husband’s remains being lost by the cryogenics company; a pair of possibly lesbian cleaners; a befuddled drug addict who collects clothes; Muriel’s best friend, who believes she is in touch with the dead; and an out of the way diner with awful food that seems to be frequented only by participants in this complicated drama.
At first, with all these disparate elements thrown together, the novel seems like a mess. But then, a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces just jumbled loose in the box seems like a mess. As Bernal, aided by Charis, begin to fit the various pieces together, the mess turns into a too-neat arrangement, all the different characters locking together with their neighbours in an arrangement that seems more artificial the tidier it becomes.
Jablokov is good at eccentric characters. Bernal, our narrator, is the least interesting character in the book because the most ordinary. Jablokov keeps trying to insert him into dramatic, sexy or plain weird situations to try to make him more engaging, and hints at traumas in his past, yet he remains a fairly bland sketch of a character. Charis, by contrast, is vividly interesting from her first appearance because she is acerbic, short-tempered, doesn’t particularly like or trust Bernal, and becomes more impatient the wilder his assumptions about what is really going on. (As a rule of thumb in novels such as this, of course, the wilder the assumption the more likely it is to be the correct one; but Charis doesn’t know she’s in a novel such as this. Bernal might know, but Jablokov doesn’t develop that idea in any way that might make this a more interesting novel; Muriel certainly does know, but she is off stage practically the entire time, so such knowledge cannot impinge upon the story.)
The lesser characters – Patricia with one of the few secrets in the book that an astute reader is not going to guess until it is revealed; the foxy neighbour; the medium who turns out to be more sensible and practical than anyone else – are more interesting still, but that is mostly because they are little more than cartoons, a few broad strokes that allows us to see their idiosyncracy without coming close enough to add the details of ordinary humanity to the picture. And that is possibly the best way to read the novel: as a cartoon. Outline figures inserting themselves into increasingly ludicrous situations are clearly intended to be comic; but the comedy is contained within a mystery story that is also trying to be at the same time dark-edged and optimistically science-fictional. Somehow, this mix of styles and intentions never quite coheres into a story that knows what it is trying to be.
And therein lies the problem. Jablokov may be good at cartoonish characters, as I say, and he is clearly good at mechanistic plots where every well-oiled element fits smoothly into the machine; but is he any good at story? Jablokov’s six novels written in the 1990s were well received, in part at least because of the skill with which he played with genre conventions. His return to novel writing sees him using conventional forms once more, but rather than teasing something new out of the form he seems, to me, to be rather lamely emphasising the conventional for the sake of comic effect. As a result, we get a novel that engages that part of the intellect that likes working through intricate puzzles, and it invites us to laugh at it as we go along; but it never engages the emotions, it never suggests that anything real depends upon solving the puzzle, it never gives us pause to think about what might come after the no-time of the story. Nothing develops across the book, it is as divorced from time as a jigsaw puzzle, there is a sequence in which the pieces of the puzzle are laid down but the same carefully contrived picture would emerge if they were laid down in a different sequence, and the picture is one frozen moment entire of itself, there is no before and no after. Therefore it does not affect the world, it does not affect us.
If you like solving jigsaws, the chances are you will enjoy working your way through this novel (though I had guessed most of the secrets long before they are revealed within the text). But I doubt that the novel will live long once you have closed the final page.