the pathetic caverns - books by author - John Shirley
eclectic reviews and opinions
Reviewers frequently describe rock bands as if they were imaginary collaborations with other rock bands. It's a practice probably a little more frowned on in discussing novels, but I'll succumb to the temptation in this case and provide a rough recipe:
- 3 parts Don DeLillo's White Noise
- 2 parts Peter Carey's Bliss
- 2 parts Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus novels
- 1 part Raiders of the Lost Ark
Or, in other words, it's a supernatural horror/adventure novel (actually two twinned novellas) with a satirical edge, a strong moral compass and serious things to say about the problem of human evil, both as enacted by individuals and by corporate and national entities. It's smart, lean, sometimes gruesome, sometimes morbidly funny; it's saved from being lurid by its essential compassion. I liked it very much, better than anything else of Shirley's that I've read.
The first novella takes place in a world overrun by demons: vicious, capricious, powerful, horribly violent. Thematically, it is largely an expansion of its opening sentence: "It's amazing what you can get used to." Shirley says in his Author's Note that the both parts of the book were written before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, but that "they are not without relevance," and see what he means.
There was a lot that I didn't like about the media's role in helping US citizens cope with the impact of last year's attacks, but I think I understand the underlying drive: repeat the images until they lose their impact, keep them small, confined to the bounds of a television screen or a news magazine page. Discuss and analyze and rehash ad inifinitum. Wrap a sheen of unreality and distance around the whole bloody morass and shock of it, like candy coating on a bitter pill.
And I wouldn't like the way the media deal with Shirley's demon invasion, either, which gives it a nasty ring of truth. The demons are given deceptively cutesty names: Sharkadians, Dishrags, Gnashers, Grinders, and, ultimately, life goes on, albeit with rather more decpatitations and impalings and eviscerations than usual. And people, after a fashion, do get used to it.
The second novella has a premise that is even more chilling: nine years after the events in the first half of the book, people have reduced their impact to the point that they are generally referred to as the "Demon Hallucinations" and discounted almost completely.
Which brings me to one of the things I like best about this book: I cited "Raiders" for its derring-do, but ultimately "Raiders" is built around a cop-out. It implies that the evil of the Nazis was supernatural, external in origin, intrinsically not human, which I think is a comforting, but dangerous, myth. Shirley confronts the evil inherent in humanity head-on: his demons, ultimately, are manifestations of human greed and blood-lust.
In a key scene in the second novella, an employee of a chemical manufacturing conglomerate reads a document detailing US experiments in chemical and biological warfare; a few minutes' research reveals that a great many people hold that material to be factual and not at all exagerrated (some of it is still officially denied, of course).
But although Shirley's demons don't exactly go away when you close the book, it's not bleak, and it's fundamentally hopeful — when Stephen Isquerat reads about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, MK ULTRA and the rest of it, he is given an opportunity to change the course of his actions. Shirley seems to argue that our best chance for overcoming and transcending our potential for evil is simply clear-eyed awareness of it — not glorifying it, but not burying it either.
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