22 January 2009

Booklog, Liberation

Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, 2008
Tor Books
299 pages

What a wonder is Brian Francis Slattery. His first novel, Spaceman Blues is one of the most assured debuts I've ever read, a comic-book plot wrung through a humanistic lens and written in the kind of prose that would make Harlan Ellison and William Gibson weep. His second novel is even more astonishing -- with a half measure of Philip K. Dick another half of Kurt Vonnegut, and a full overheaping measure of none other than Thomas Pynchon on his more communicative days, Liberation is beautifully written with impeccable prose styling, contains characters that make you cringe and weep in equal measure, and is astonishing throughout its length. The fact that it doesn't wear out its welcome and reaches a conclusion in less than three hundred pages is nothing short of astonishing.

Take a gander at that title, clause by clause, in reverse:

After the Collapse of the United States of America. This is a post-apocalyptic story, to be sure, but it's not the ecological disaster of The Road or the zombie infestation of World War Z, or even the nuclear winter of too-many-to-count. Instead, Slattery's novel takes place at some unspecified time in the near future, approximately four years after an economic collapse of the United States. And when I say the United States, I mean it -- the glimpses we see of the rest of the world seem to indicate that things have basically gone on as usual, with a bit of a slowdown given that the world's largest consumer of cheap crap has gone down the tubes. Slattery is a writer on international economic issues, and his expertise gives this element of the book the intellectual heft it needs to be plausible, despite never really going into detail about the precise mechanisms of the economic collapse.

As has been noted in many other reviews of the novel, Slattery's vision of this post-collapse America is similar in many ways to nineteenth-century America. Cities maintain their own defensive networks and sovereignty, protection of individual rights tends to lie with the individual working alone with whatever means are at his or her disposal, and certain, well, institutions have made a resurgence. The destruction of the US government has created a power vacuum into which the master criminal the Aardvark has stepped -- he is called the Emperor of America and rules New York with something of an iron fist... although we later learn that perhaps being in charge isn't quite the boon you'd think.

Being the Adventures of the Slick Six. If the setting seems scarily real, the characters populating this landscape are straight out of the pulpiest of pulp fiction. The abovementioned Aardvark is the antagonist to the titular "Six," a group of master criminals who owe more to Ocean's 11 than anything in the real world. They are "the ones who pulled off impossible crimes, who stole houses from those who lived in them, drew millions upon millions out of the margins of error in the currency market, spirited jewels and paintings out of vaults and museums and into the black market, where money flew huge and invisible through the ether." First among equals in the group is Marco, a refugee from Latin America with the kind of violent past that makes those in City of God seem bucolic by comparison.

Marco is a killer among killers, death for anyone who gets in his way, and it is largely through his journey across the hulking remains of the US as he puts his team back together that we see many of the amazing sights that Slattery has planned out for us. The past bleeds into the present and the future lends its eye back to the past as Slattery tells us the story of Cyclone Cal, who builds a maniacal magical circus that destroys all it touches. The humble but proud residents who chose not to flee Los Angeles for the shores of East Asia and instead let stories of their own cannibalism spread to the few rich people who helicopter from tower to tower so as not to let anyone know how good they have it now. The endless Burning-Man like cycle of parties that is the new Las Vegas. And the drug-fueled mystical journey across the new continent engaged in by the Americoids, a group of hippies who give voice to the magical Vibe that gives knowledge and wisdom to those that deserve it... sometimes. And Marco's going to need it, because his final goal is nothing less than:

Liberation. For in this future America slavery has resurfaced, and as penance for the corpses that he has left across continents in the pre-collapse world, Marco feels driven to free the slaves. Which means rebuilding something of the old America out of the new. Which further means taking down the unbeatable Aardvark, who has a few aces up his sleeves as well.

I've done a poor job of summarizing this novel. For the most part, it's unsummarizable. As crazy as the above sounds, I've probably made Liberation seem much more conventional than it actually is. Slattery proves with this book that he isn't a one-trick pony, and indeed is shaping up to be one of the most vital new writers of the not-so-new-anymore century. Liberation, I am sure, will be a novel I will be revisiting from time to time for the rest of my life. If there is a second coming of Thomas Pynchon (who, of course, is still alive), it's going to come in the form of Brian Francis Slattery.

Rating: A

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