Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
I used to own a bookshop called Nebula. The original concept was a comprehensive
science fiction and fantasy specialty, combined with a selection of comics
and film books. Over the years, the shop grew to include many other book
categories that I felt would be of interest to my core genre clientele.
One of the things I took special pleasure in was keeping an eye out for
out-of-genre fiction that would quench the thirst of my science fiction
customers without being explicitly SF at all. Were I still a bookseller,
there are two such books from 2001 that I would be recommending to my customers:
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and Carter Beats the Devil by Glen
David Gold. Before getting to these booksto set up what I have to say
about themI'd like to discuss SF a bit.
First, let's consider J.G. Ballard's Crash, in my opinion both
one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and one of the
greatest accomplishments in science fiction. Many readers would disagree
that Crash is science fiction at all (and certainly David Cronenberg's
humourlessly shallow film adaptation was never promoted as SF): it's not
set in the future, and there are no aliens, no time travellers, no speculative
technologies, no space voyages, no psychic powers, no dimension-hopping,
no reality-altering historical divergences. In short, it offers none of
the paraphernalia usually equated with SF. And yet precisely because Crash
eschews all of those thingswhile still managing to be SF (as I'll
argue below)it exposes SF's intrinsic qualities.
There are almost as many definitions of SF as there are SF writers.
I will not attempt here to define SF, although it will be necessary to
invoke some definitions of SF to illustrate my point.
One could say that SF speculates on the effects of technological and/or
societal change on humanity. I think that most SF readers would agree that,
from H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlein and from Isaac Asimov to William Gibson,
this has proven to be one of SF's defining characteristics. Let's return
to Crash. In this aptly titled novel, Ballard deals with the impact
of automobile technology on humans. To this day, it remains a pertinent
diagnosis of the transformative effectsboth wrought and latentof
car culture on human consciousness. In other words: it's a work of fiction
that speculates on the effects of technological change on humanity. Ergo,
it is SF.
One could also say that SF is the literature of cognitive dissonance,
in which bits of seemingly contradictory information clash to propose different
ways of perceiving and interpreting reality. More than anything, that thrill,
that search for consensus-shattering worldviews, is what keeps me reading
SF. When Wells challenged anthropocentricism and British imperialism in
The War of the Worlds, it was a willful act of cognitive dissonance
(although the term had yet to be coined). A century later, Paul Di Filippo's
Ciphersopening with the telling line, "Am I live or am I Memorex?"was a memetic assault on consensus reality that layered cognitive dissonances
like moisturiser on a terminally dried-out cultural landscape.
Yet, much of what is marketed as SF downplays cognitive dissonance.
In fact, like mainstream mimetic fiction, much commercial SF offers comfortably
familiar settings and ideas that in no way challenge consensus reality.
Are such books truly SF? I'd argue that they're notthat they're simply
using spaceships and the like to masquerade as SF. In fact, too many books
published as SF by the major publishers are such travesties. Di Filippo's
Cipherswith its exuberantly dense use of cognitive dissonance
and, thus, its implied threat to the hegemonic voice of commercial SFwas published by small press Cambrian Publications. And Ballard's Crash,
by presenting attitudes and relationships to the automobile that violently
clash with the hegemonic consumer culture model of the car society, used
cognitive dissonance to explore the role of the automobile in human culture
and consciousnessan approach that is quintessentially sciencefictional.
In Ballard, consensus reality is the alien world.
Any SF specialty bookshop worthy of the appellation stocks Wells, Ballard,
and Di Filippo. That's a no-brainer. Other writers walk a more ambiguous
line. Their books could never be seriously marketed as SF, yet they nevertheless
offer pleasuresand explore ideasthat SF readers (at least those who
agree with my above observations) are apt to appreciate. Take, for example,
the previously mentioned Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and Carter
Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. (A warning: I'm usually careful
not to reveal key plot elements of the fiction I review, but the following
consideration of the appeal these books might have for SF readers will
perforce include such spoilers.)
By the end of Choke, readers are reassured that all overtly sciencefictional
red herrings were just that. Victor is not the reincarnation of Jesus Christ:
it was a fabrication of Paige's. As for Paige, it turns out that she is
(in all likelihood) not a time traveller from 2556: she's just delusional.
So what's left of sciencefictional interest?
For one thing, Palahniuk, like Ballard, treats consensus reality like
a sciencefictional setting. No mores can be accepted at face value. Every
behaviour, belief, habit, or norm can potentially be dissected, inverted,
and perverted in an effort to grasp it. Palahniuk, since his first novel,
Fight Club, has been setting his books in the here-and-now, but the
reality described by his narrators clashes violently with the cultural
perceptions that allow us to function (more or less) viably on a day-to-day
basis. Like Di Filippo's Ciphers or Ribofunk, Palahniuk's
narratives are memetic assaults of cognitive dissonances, challenging consensus
interpretations of reality. Like Ballard's, Palahniuk's fiction reads like
a diagnosis for incurable cognitive pathologies. In Palahniuk, humanity
treats societal change like a contagious disease, releasing antibodies
that will only cure the affliction once they kill the patient. How much
more sciencefictional can you get?
In Choke, Victor, the narrator/protagonist, is a sex junkie who
attends sex addiction therapy groups. To raise money to pay for his mother's
medical care, he nightly chokes on restaurant food, thus initiating saviour/victim
relationships with hundreds of would-be do-gooders who see his welfare
as their personal responsibility. His aging and ailing mother can no longer
recognize him, so he poses, in rotation, as her former defence lawyers
(in her prime, she was a self-styled cultural terrorist who, among other
things, kept kidnapping Victor from an endless parade of foster homes),
while she complains about how Victor never visits her. Victor's best friend
Denny is a compulsive masturbator who collects one rock a day to imbue
his life with meaning, until that addiction also gets out of control. I
could go on and on with detailsthe description of the airplane bathroom
casual sex culture, the strange insular reality of the historical theme
park where Victor works, the bizarre sexual encounters, the outré
capers of Victor's mombut none of them will succeed in conveying the
near-Clockwork Orange intensity of the language and narrative perspective.
Palahniuk digs into the festering wounds of the world we live in, an alien(ated)
world we barely dare know. But, as Palahniuk shows us, we ignore it at
our own peril.
In comparison, Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil is a
much milder affair, but it's a rousing read and, in its way, another example
of a mainstream novel concerning itself with matters sciencefictional.
It is also of associational fantasy interest, as it centers on the world
of stage magic, the profession of illusory fantasy. Indeed, many of the
illusions are so vividly described that, before their secrets were revealed,
I often found myself convinced that there was a hidden supernatural power
behind Carter's spectacular feats.
Gold's novel is an expansive historical novel of Americana somewhat
in the vein of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &
Clay and Caleb Carr's The Alienist. It's a much lighter affair
than either of them: not as probing and profound as the Chabon and, although
it does incorporate certain elements of a murder mystery investigation,
not as dark and menacing as the Carr. The protagonist, Charles Carter,
was a real-life stage magician (the book's cover is adapted from his most
famous promo poster). Several other major characters are also historicalmost notably, President Harding and Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of
televisionbut the tale itself is entirely fictional.
President Harding dies mysteriously the day after participating in a
(seemingly) violent stunt onstage with Carter. An unusually unlucky FBI
investigator is convinced that Carter is responsible. While the agent builds
his case, the novel flashbacks to Carter's youth and traces his life until
it catches up with the main events of the novel. The night they met, Harding passed on a revolutionary secret to Carter, albeit one he could
not understand. It concerned the plans for a strange inventiontelevisionby an unknown scientist named Philo Farnsworth. Government and industry
are both after Carter, unsure if they want to suppress the invention or
have a monopoly on it. Allying himself with the young Farnsworth, Carter
creates a new illusion showcasing the new technology. Meanwhile, a menace
from his past returns, hired to kill Carter while the FBI agent closes
in to arrest the magician.
There are several points that make this novel interesting from a sciencefictional
perspective. First, there is the description of a semi-secret culture existing
in parallel to mundane life, the world of magicians. This may not be as
extreme a vision as, say, the hidden city of Wells's "The Country of
the Blind," the immortality cult of Robert Silverberg's The Book of
Skulls, the secret world of car crash fetishists of Ballard's Crash,
or the complex conspiracy behind Di Filippo's Ciphers, but it does
offer some of the same exotic pleasures (despite being, unlike these examples
from science fiction, an account of a real subculture rather than an imagined
creation). Second, in readjusting history to fit his narrativeespecially
the date of television's creationGold comes close to committing an act
of alternate history (but not quite, as we come to understand that the
events of the novel fail to change the course of history).
Finally, Gold explores the reactions that televisiona technology
with the potential to radically change society (which we know it fulfilled)evoke in a wide array of people, from technicians, scientists, and entertainers
to capitalists, elected officials, and generals. And we see a glimpse of
the transformative effect it can have on audiences. Although Carter
Beats the Devil deals with a technological innovation that is in our
past, it does so in a way very much like a science fiction novel set in
the present day or near future would with an emerging technology. Of course,
because the novel's future is our past, its speculations are no more speculative
than Carter's illusions are supernaturally magical. Gold's conjuring of
fantasy and science fiction turns out to be a sham, but what a wildly entertaining
one! An illusion worthy of his protagonist.
What is science fiction? I tend to despise the climate that dictates
such genre classifications. And I'm not saying that Choke and Carter
Beats the Devil are science fiction, not really. But, paradoxically,
they may offer more of what some SF readers are looking for than many of
the books on the SF shelves.