Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and Artemis, Shall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?, Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage, Cold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons, and Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath.
How does one review Nick Mamatas’ Sensation? This slim novel, published by PM Press (“We seek to create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books”) is a novel one must come at sideways, in fragments of critical observations, rather than directly, it seems to me. It is confounding, irritating and at times sublime.
In its capsule summary, Sensation is about a woman, Julia, who is stung by a wasp and becomes the leader of a sort of radical political movement; and about her husband, Raymond, who is trying to find her; and about the race of intelligent spiders who secretly control much of human history. Which doesn’t really do the novel much justice.
One of the things I am fascinated by is narration. I used to think narrators were either the author, or a character within the book. Narratologists would actually call this External Narrators and Internal Narrators. An External Narrator is not necessarily the “author”. Who is telling the story? One excellent example is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, in which the narrator seems to be one of those Victorian omniscient narrators but… also gives you glimpses, here and there, of an identity, of someone writing after the events. The question of the narrator’s identity in Jonathan Strange is, I think, one of the (many) interesting puzzles in the novel.
In Sensation, the narrator(s) are a we – the spiders. Watch how our sense of narrator shifts within the first page of the novel. It begins as a typical third-person, External Narrator:
Raymond saw his ex-wife twice – both times by accident – in the first few months after she went into hiding.
Almost immediately afterwards we shift to seeing things from Raymond’s perspective:
She even wrote a check, pulling her checkbook from the purple purse – purple! thought Raymond – and filling out every line while two of the other customers behind her silently fumed.
Then, in the very next line, our perspective shifts again:
There was a third customer too, a large man of indeterminate ethnicity in whose emptied-out brainpan we rode. We cradled a gallon of skim milk like it was an infant and waited more patiently.
There are essentially three shifts in our perception of the narrator within the first page, which sets the tone, I think, for the novel as a whole. It is a novel that is less about things and more about the way we see things.
Another example of this is the Simulacrum, that part of the city you (the you the novel is addressed to) go past every day but never stop in. The Simulacrum is an environment controlled by the spiders and scattered in enclaves across the world of the novel:
The Simulacrum is not just a precise copy of the world, it is overlaid on your world, like the other half of a chessboard a particular pawn may never cross. It has everything this world does, save [the wasps]. The Simulacrum is a web of tendencies and notions, the bakery down the block from the one you go to for your bagel. […] The Simulacrum is the home of men of indeterminate ethnicity.
Julia finds refuge in the Simulacra for a while, taking on a spider-woven “man of indeterminate ethnicity” as a lover and working as a customer support representative. The theme of perception, or rather of the instability of perception, continues in one of many satirical points:
At work, Julia went by the name Undrehuh, which she believed to be the way a call centre worker from India might say the name Andrea after taking a course in accent reduction.
Mamatas has described the novel as satire, which is certainly a mode, though I do wonder what exactly it satirises. Which is where part of the frustration with the novel comes in. It is a remarkably self-indulgent novel, I think, taking a sort of pot-shot approach to its narrative, aiming Mamatas’ attention at variously mass media, middle-class revolutionaries, the Internet, race – in short, the Modern World. But it does not quite have the heft to be the great modern novel about Our Times and, rather like this review, it approaches its subject matter in an underhand fashion: it is a run-and-grab sort of novel.
This is not to take from the novel’s power, which is considerable. It is an ambitious work, a serious work, a strange work. It is far more exciting than most of the genre novels I read this year, and possibly the shortest, for that.
Mamatas is an author sometimes in love with pastiche. First novel Move Under Ground mashes together Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft, while The Damned Highway (with Brian Keene) mashes Lovecraft with Hunter S. Thompson. This is also notable in some of his short fiction. “That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” (in Lovecraft Unbound, ed. Ellen Datlow) he mashes Lovecraft yet again, this time with Raymond Carver. “Four is Me! With squeeeeee! (And LOLer)”, published in Apex Magazine, is a wonderfully surreal take on J.D. Salinger (“For Esme, With Love and Squalor”).
In Sensation, thankfully, Mamatas isn’t pastiching Lovecraft, for once, but the most obvious influences on the novel are two: the aforementioned Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut comes across in the sort of ironic fabulist approach Mamatas employs, the “so it goes” discipline of the text; but it is Salinger, specifically, I think, who informs Mamatas’ voice. In Mamatas’ short story “A Stain on the Stone” – one of my favourite stories of his – that voice is on full display, that sort of young, disaffected white male American voice, the Holden Caulfield of horror. That same sense permeates Sensation. The novel feels, in fact, remarkably like the sort of teen cult book one would fall in love with in formative years. In the same way one might discover Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and think Libertarian politics are Cool, or discover Catch-22 and become a some-time pacifist, or discover, indeed, Catcher in the Rye and become a rebel without a cause (the sort who likes Wes Anderson movies and dresses ironically, perhaps – the sort of person parodied by Mamatas in Sensation, indeed).
It leads me to thinking of what we call the infantilisation of science fiction. I don’t mean that in a negative sense. SF is a genre of childhood, or of a desire to return to childhood; even to the womb. It is a genre of thrusting rockets and enclosed spaceship wombs, and when the SF Encyclopaedia itself makes the comment that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is fourteen”, it is only half in jest. The recent double win of Jo Walton’s Among Others of SF’s two major awards reaffirms SF’s love affair with both childhood and itself, and Sensation, while in a way in is the very antithesis of the Walton novel, is also paradoxically twinned to it: it has the energy and disaffection of youth.
I cannot find a way to address Sensation directly. I can only make a series of tangential observations around it. It is frustrating, irritating, and captivating all at once. More than anything it feels fresh to me. It is a novel that has things to say and ways of saying them. Had I discovered it at fourteen I might have fallen in love: at thirty-five it remains to me to simply admire it.
Sensation, Nick Mamatas, PM Press 2011.