Monday, January 16, 2012

Pocket Universe, Fissure, Hernia, or Portal Novel: A Reading of Adam Christopher's "Empire State"

When I first heard about Adam Christopher's debut novel, Empire State (Angry Robot Books 2012), I immediately began to imagine a world similar to the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, intermixed with a panoply of superheroes à la Alan Moore.

As my imagination took off, I heard Scott Joplin tunes playing in speakeasys in Harlem and wild nights spent at the Cotton Club, listening to Cab Calloway, dancing to Minnie the Moocher. Around the city, Murder Incorporated butchered its enemies and bloated bodies floated on the East River, while out-of-work veterans lived in a make-shift Hooverville in Central Park, forgotten men panhandled on Fifth Avenue, and a William Powell and Myrna Loy film runs at a theater on Sixth Avenue. Communist cells spring up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, enlisting Jewish immigrants, disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Irish cops, maybe one of my relatives, walk their beats in Manhattan and the FBI dukes it out with gangsters bringing in whiskey from Canada. Raymond Chandler writes The Big Sleep and the first-person noir voice is born.

Unfortunately, my imagination got ahead of me. Adam Christopher's novel contains some of the same elements delivered by my fevered imagination but his novel is something different, more original than just a science fiction novel set within a historical period. His novel owes more to the strange, almost bizarre comics that emerged in the thirties and forties. Anyone who grew up in the forties and fifties is familiar with the strange comic world of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. Tracy appeared in 1931 and received its impetus and story lines from gangland violence in Chicago. Gould imbued his comic with violence, strange science and villains so evil that they expressed their personalities through their tortured and deformed flesh. Christopher's novel does not allude to Gould but it certainly hums with comic vibrations from the work of Bob Kane. Kane, the creator of Batman, entered the field in 1936. His characters, like those of Gould, are dark, haunted creatures who live in a Gothic universe. Christopher is a young man, who admits that he came to comics late. His sensibilities rely more on Doctor Who, Alan Moore, the Disney film The Rocketeer and Grant Morrison. Consequently, his vision formed in the cauldron of modern pop culture envisions something unique and slightly grotesque; a pocket world, hernia-like, is formed when two superheroes-- disputing lovers--wage a combat to the death over the skies of Manhattan in 1930. From their duel a fissure is formed and a new world created. But it isn't just one world that springs fully formed from New York; it is a mirror image similar to a series of soap bubbles, forming world after world. The first world on the string is Empire State, a pocket world born in 1930.

Within the first fissure, doubles live, unaware of their counterparts above them. It is a strange gaseous place, similar to the world of the film Dark City, where people from both sides of the fissure wander, fall, disappear, and work. The protagonist, Rad Bradley, is a down and out gumshoe, existing without any visible means of support, waiting for that one femme fatale to walk into his seedy office. And , of course, she enters, as sexy as Veronica Lake and as rich as Croesus. Katherine Kopek is looking for her lover, who has disappeared without a trace and she hires Rad to find her. His search will connect him to intrigue emanating from the fissure and the machinations of the cognoscenti within the fissure. So begins his quest and the adventure.

Within the structure of the noir, Christopher creates a comic-book sensibility with enough ideas in this book to fuel a long run of subsequent tales, after all there are a million stories in the Naked City or Empire State.

Empire State, however, is not a re-creation of New York in the 30s; it is a comic book facsimile with modern tonalities and an understanding of various genres--noir, science fiction, portal novel, time travel (of sorts). It is a unique work, although it has borrowed memes from a panoply of authors and genres and it is some-what raw at times, carving its own niche in a field  and a publisher known for its unique works.

Finally, Empire State is a veritable petri dish of ideas and images.

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