Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Mind is a Razor Blade

Kudos to Max Booth.  In The Mind is a Razor Blade, his second novel, he could have written a follow up to his debut novel Toxicity by doing more of what he did so well in the first book.  Toxicity is a dark but raucously funny crime novel with three or four intersecting plot lines, and as its story jumps from character to character, it gets inside the heads of several people.  It is told in the third person throughout.  By contrast, The Mind is a Razor Blade is a first person narrative, a novel that locks you from its opening line inside the brain of one man. That he's a man utterly confused, lost, is clear from the get-go.  He's disoriented because of memory loss, and since everything in the book is told through his perspective, we're as limited in our understanding of the events happening to him as he is.  We look for clues and search for meaning as he does; we try to make sense of the world he inhabits. It's a violent nightmare world that he moves through - a world Hieronymus Bosch would be proud of - and the whirlwind of bizarre incidents has some particular significance for him.  What is that significance, though?  That's the question the narrator and the reader need answered.

The trope of the amnesiac struggling to find out who he is and why he's so capable of certain actions (killing, for example, like our guy in this book can do easily) is an old and familiar one.  But Max Booth gives it fresh life.  The Mind is a Razor Blade opens in media res, with the narrator coming to consciousness naked in the woods, lying in the mud, near a corpse marked with bullet holes.  Within moments of realizing that he must've killed the dead man, the narrator shoots and kills a cop.  All this while he's trying to get his most basic bearings about himself and why he is in such a tense predicament.  In its immediacy and noirish mood, the feeling of a mind bursting awake but still befogged,  this opening reminded me of the film Memento. But where the author takes his story from this dramatic start goes well beyond mere noir or any one specific genre.  Our narrator, later called Bobby, is living in a world that's somewhat futuristic (in a post-industrial, anarchic, dystopian kind of way), but it's a world that also has soul-takers, demons, telekinesis, and spiders that live in people's necks.  All sense of civil, organized society seems to have collapsed; every conceivable type of degenerate has full access to the streets. The police may exist, as the first scene showed, but chaos and violence predominate.  Destruction, fear, and rottenness are everywhere. And over the entire insane spectacle hovers a chilling and mysterious word, carried by bums on cardboard signs, spoken by others to the narrator, a word that rings in our narrator's head - Conundrae.  What is Conundrae? Who is Conundrae?  And why do people refer to that name in tones of awe and terror, like the haunted people in a Lovecraft story whispering of the entity Chulthu?

In The Mind is a Razor Blade, Max Booth concocts a tale that is part crime story, part horror novel, part science fiction, part psychological thriller. He fuses these genres effortlessly into a coherent whole, an energetic and engaging work.  The pace is brisk; horrific and revolting imagery mix with black humor and moments of surprising tenderness.  And through it all, Booth takes a big risk.  It's extraordinarily difficult to craft a novel that for most of its length provides few answers to the myriad questions posed.  The reader really is in the dark as to the overall shape and meaning of what is happening, though the characters around the narrator all seem to have an inkling, or definite knowledge, of the general pattern.  At times, you feel as frustrated as the bewildered protagonist. When will we get some clear answers? you wonder.  Why do all those people know something, while I know virtually nothing?  Is the narrator in a half-dead, half-alive state, a twilight state like the hanged man's in Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?  Or maybe he's merely getting closer to death and everything is happening in his mind like we saw happened to the woman Mary in the horror film classic Carnival of Souls.  These were among my thoughts as I read, and to be honest, I don't think I've read such a sustained exercise in hallucinatory mysteriousness since reading Iain Banks' great book The BridgeRazor Blade has a mood and feeling similar to that Scottish masterpiece.  It is both visceral and intellectual, and you never get the sense that the author doesn't know where he's taking us.  He is the true master of this universe. He's got the chops and the confidence to pull off the prolonged mysteriousness, and he trusts the reader to go along for the ride.  

The Mind is a Razor Blade is not as reader friendly as Toxicity.  It makes you work harder.  Its payoff, ultimately, is bleaker.  But what comes across is a person writing what he wants to write, what he feels he must write come hell or high water.  And no matter how harsh things get in the world depicted, Booth never slips into despair. His narrator and the small band the narrator connects with have too much energy for that.  Friendship is always possible, even love.  A joke made in a difficult moment can work wonders.  The struggle here, at bottom, is existential: the question is how to survive in a world so degraded, and how to retain some humanity.  Fantastical as Booth's world is, it feels oddly enough like our own.  All that pain, suffering, and torture, all that madness...How to deal with it?  Through his narrator's actions, Booth ventures a tentative answer that seems to be akin to Italo Calvino's in Invisible Cities: "seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." 

Pick up The Mind is a Razor Blade here.

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