July 05, 2011
There is a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction coming out these days reflective of society’s state of mind. We’re expecting the end times, waiting for everything to crumble. Religion and the media just perpetuate the sentiment, and the imagined methods of our destruction are as varied as the timelines.
There is also a lot of genre-bending fiction coming out, reflective of readers’ state of mind. We’re looking for more in our stories, not being content with the typical tropes. Crime and noir are PhD-able, sci-fi and horror are slowly gaining ground (though not fast enough) and there are enough hybrids to make classification a hyphenated nightmare.
Enter The Dewey Decimal System, the hardboiled-noir-satirical-sci-fi debut novel from Nathan Larson.
Set in the not-too-distant future, New York City has collapsed after several terrorist attacks and a complete financial meltdown. Through the eyes of an anonymous narrator, dubbed Dewey Decimal because of his obsession with reorganizing the New York Public Library’s books, we see how far into total disrepair the city has fallen. Less than 800,000 residents are left. Demolished buildings, abandoned apartments and Priuses fill the streets. Dewey works for District Attorney Rosenblatt, running errands and occasionally providing some muscle, so when the DA sends Dewey on a routine assignment-eliminating a union target-we don’t think twice. Being a crime novel, though, the task is never as easy as it should be. Cue the Ukrainian mobsters, the martial law security, the ever-changing names and allegiances of characters. The keystones of crime/mystery fiction are here-femmes fatale, faulty memory, shifting loyalties and copious amounts of violence-and they deliver in spades.
Take Dewey himself: A compulsive, down-trodden bookworm who’s also a cold-blooded, body-dropping motherfucker. He coolly guns down thugs like they’re a carnival game, but freaks out if he doesn’t have his Purell. After being hospitalized for a gunshot wound, he makes a blighted escape:
My first mistake was stealing a wheelchair. As opposed to a crutch or something, more or less broadcasting my defenselessness to all and sundry.
Not to mention the freaking monster of a hill around 96th Street. I’m vibing Special Olympics, with a strong emphasis on “special.”
Added to that, he knows that he was some type of elite soldier and suffered injuries during the war, resulting, in memory loss, but what injuries, which unit, and even which war isn’t so clear. After a run-in with his target’s wife, he says:
It’s important to understand that I believe I have had certain aspects of my memory erased while laid up in D.C. What’s more, I believe I had false memories implanted. I have no way to prove this, it just feels like a gut feeling.
As the vagaries begin to layer, we not only understand the confusion that Dewey constantly inhabits, but get the hints of our own personal apocalypses, rather than one spelled out in catastrophic terms. What I mean by that is Larson, in a clever move, gives us a line drawing of The End and lets us shade it with whatever darkness lurks in our skull. This kind of shotgun-memory description, to borrow a term from Craig Clevenger, permeates the novel and pushes it beyond the edge of convention into something wholly unique.
The joy of The Dewey Decimal System is in the tiny details, whether exposed to light or left to slink through the dark corners. Take the Valentine’s Occurrence. Rather: Occurrence(s). The aforementioned terrorist attacks happened on Valentine’s Day, and though no motive or specific details are really discussed other than the date, there are enough veiled references and theories to place this novel up alongside Forecast and 1984 for art imitating life imitating art. Dewey opens the novel with the aftershock of a recurring nightmare, a few brushstrokes to intimate how he (we) might’ve gotten (might get) here (there):
I am, or was, in a landscape without features, save for funnels of sand the wind might kick up, and the occasional cluster of low buildings. In this antispace there were long periods of time where nothing whatsoever occurred, and we were very hot. When shit did happen, it did so very fast, in a flourish of blood and bits of metal and fiberglass. Even so, it all seemed very half-assed. Hard to take seriously.
Like a bad movie you didn’t really want to watch, but settled on for lack of options.
There are also smaller send-ups, like the DA and his ultra-clipped manner of speaking. It felt like a nod to the old fast-talking, cigar-chomping pulp policemen, only taken to the next level, as is befitting for the novel. Rosenblatt describes the Ukrainians, Dewey’s latest errand:
Fucking animals. Eat their young. My point: they get reorganized, that’s the kibosh on a fair percentage of current and future construction projects. Cost prohibitive. We go back to this Local 79 mess, they’ll be expecting heath care and thirty-hour work weeks and fuck knows what else on a velvet pillow. Decimal. Have a pistachio. Vibing Dachau over there. Creepier than usual, which is saying a mouthful.
They lend a familiar feeling to the characters, adding to the socio-cultural subtext while avoiding straight-up pastiche.
Although the vague details and homage are what make the book so enjoyable-aside from Dewey’s narration, of course-their effectiveness sometimes wavers. At points Dewey’s neuroses feel a hair over the line from quirky into laundry list. The number of unanswered questions can also become a distraction from the main narrative if explored too far. This multitude of conspiracy theories both helps and hinders the novel. As he tracks his target through the city early in the novel, Dewey explains New York’s thinned population:
Even prior to the Valentine’s Occurrence (which was really a series of coordinated occurrences, plural; I find it irritating and inaccurate to refer to that day as a single event, but when a name sticks it sticks), folks were leaving in droves, especially after the third major economic crash and the free fall of the dollar.
We were ready for the first big crash, more or less ready for the second, but certainly not the third, which was effectively a death knell for the dollar, euro, pound, rupee, and yen.
And then, the Valentine’s Occurrence(s). A.k.a. 2/14.
Traffic, at any rate, was light.
The New York-centric feel of the novel also wavers on that line of alienating. Maybe alienating isn’t the right word, more that there is a greater appreciation of the novel if you live in New York.
These minor qualms might be a matter taste, and ultimately are just that: Minor qualms. The voice of Dewey is so compelling that any interruption from the plot is quickly remedied and the questions don’t pop up again until after the cover is closed, sitting back and reflecting on the story as a whole. It doesn’t hurt that a line on the dust jacket hints that this is only the first book of a series, giving hope that some of these paths will be explored.
That is, as long as Dewey doesn’t forget.