Over the weekend I received and read two books from Amazon.com.uk: Chris Roberson's "Book of Secrets" and Lauren Beukes'"Moxyland."
Both books are from "Angry Robot" and both books are supposedly science fiction. However, no two books could be so different and yet inhabit the same "genre" space. Roberson's book is a look-back at the glorious age of pulp and therefore a meta-fictional exercise in types and sub-categories of genre; whereas Beukes' novel is a peek into a dark and perilous near-future.
Let's say at the outset that I enjoyed both books. Irrespective of the readability of the books--they were both fast reads--I was more intrigued by how different two books in the same genre could be. Their contained and inherent dissimilarity inhabits the same shelf space, so, of course, they begged the question--what is science fiction?
I will review Beukes in a later review and start with Mr. Roberson's novel.
"Book of Secrets" is (1) a crime novel, reminiscent of the noir fiction of the thirties; (2) a meta-fiction celebrating American genre fiction of the thirties, forties and fifties; (3) a bildungsroman about the spiritual journey of a young man; (4) a portal fantasy.
As you might glean from the previous paragraph, Mr. Roberson tells several stories in several forms. If we look for "the figure in the carpet" imagine an "x." One bar of the "x" progresses chronologically; that is the first person narrative of an investigative reporter by the name of Spencer Finch. Spencer Finch is on an assignment for the magazine "Logion" to reveal the nefarious dealings of a Houston bigwig by the name of J. Nathan Pierce, known as "Nez."
From this initial information, however, we are alerted that this is not your usual hard-boiled fiction based in the hard-scrabble world of reality. First, "Logion" is an online magazine and its name alerts us (perhaps warns us) that we are in "metaphysical" country. "Logion" refers to the traditional maxims and proverbs told by a sage or prophet. In most instances it is used to describe the maxims of Jesus. So, our protagonist is writing for a metaphysical or a religiously oriented virtual magazine, although that is never stated.
Next, Mr. Pierce, our unseen or barely seen subject, is called "Nez." This is obviously a reference to the Indian tribe--Nez Perce--who not only had their own unique language but a highly developed mythology. Languages and mythologies become a theme and Mr Roberson introduces us to various mysteries revolving around a mysterious book written in many hands and many languages.
Situated in the metaphysical world, we are now alert to possible puzzles of meaning. After all, it is a mystery or is it?
Not to put too fine a point on it and not to scare off any reader, the novel is also a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a novel that has as its main theme the formative years or spiritual education of one person. The one person in this case is Spencer Finch and the purpose of the first leg of the "x" is to take the reader on a chronological journey through his spiritual development.
The second leg of the "x," however, is the fantastical element of the novel. Its narrative moves in reverse toward the past. Just as a good metaphysical investigation, the reader must follow the past through a series of short stories about a family of do-goers named the Black Hand to the “happy” origins of humanity.
Mr. Roberson uses these stories, short stories, to educate the reader, solve the mystery, and display the various genres--short story, pulp fiction, tragedy, etc--that were used in pulp fiction. Additionally, and this is very important because it elevates the novel, Roberson, by actually including the stories rather than describing them, inducts and educates the reader into the pleasure of pulp. This not only shows his versatility and enriches the text of the book but also reveals his inherent connection to the pulp tradition.
Before I move on I think we should illustrate our point and reveal Roberson's genius in actually writing the stories and including them in the narrative. Upon the death of his grandfather, Finch inherits a box of pulp magazines. The first story he reads is "The Talon's Curse" by Walter Reece. This story is the closest in time to the action of the novel and begins the count-down to the journey backwards toward the beginning of man. "The Talon's Curse" is a noir/mystery situated in San Franciso in the thirties. The next story is a Western written in 1918. Each story elicits the qualities and the identity of the members of the Black Hand.
The backward progression through the use of genre ushers the reader ultimately into the "original" world of myth and religion. This point is the intersection of the "x," and to punctuate the point, Roberson takes us through the looking glass to another world, to a world of crystal populated by angels and demi-urges.
Herein lies the fantasy and the speculation that earns the book its classification as "slipstream". If we sub-categorize it, this portion of the novel is a "portal" novel, in the vein of David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus) and C. S. Lewis (Perelandra).
So once we parse the pieces and put them back together, we discover that "Book of Secrets" is a book of genres. In other words, it is a celebration of the age of pulp with a meta-fictional slant. It moves in two directions--a very readable first person narrative in the form of a crime novel that progresses to the conclusion of the mystery and a fantasy novel that moves in reverse to disclose the nature of the universe. The two stories collide at the portal and the protagonist falls through it into a world of angels and gnostic demi-urges. This is the denouement and the moment of fantasy.
In conclusion I will summarize some other things I liked about the novel.
Roberson situates the action in my place--my physical space. I went to school in Houston, practiced law in Austin, and now live in Dallas. I know El Paso like the back of my hand. These western spaces plus New Orleans is Spencer's place and that in itself endeared the novel to me. Roberson described them clearly and truthfully and I felt and saw each city in the telling.
Second, Roberson is just a damn fine writer. He writes a good sentence; the novel is structured like a Swiss watch and paced like a Tennessee walker.
Third, in the time of the post-Tolkienians and the novel as brick, "Book of Secrets" is unique, refreshing, breezy, and fun.