Move Under Ground, Nick Mamatas

Prime, 2004 (2006 reprint), 158 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8095-5673-1

(Also freely available at www.moveunderground.com )

As I get older/wiser/crustier, I’m making efforts to change my reading habits. Schooled in the typical genre mindset that “plot is king”, I realize that sooner or later, I’ll have to appreciate reading the words themselves. Not every author wants to write according to plot, and the sooner I can accommodate that, the happier a reader I’ll be.

Move Under Ground is definitely part of my education. It may be a lot of things, but it’s not a novel built to amaze readers through mind-bending plot twists. The high concept here is “Jack Kerouac meets H.P. Lovecraft”, and if you think that plot has anything to do with those two writers, you may want to pay more attention in class next time. What if a burnt-out Kerouac, years after On The Road, journeyed back across America to save the world from an Elder God invasion? Would that be literary horror or ghastly comedy?

Well, why not both?

It’s fair to say that most allusions in this book flew way over my head. I don’t worship Kerouac’s On The Road (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read it), I usually find H.P. Lovercraft unreadable and most of what I know about William S. Burroughs comes from the movie adaptation of Naked Lunch. If copyright included the right to decide what kind of reader should read one’s work, Mamatas would have been justified in instructing vendors to forbid me from buying his book. (Worse yet: Since I purchased the last copy of the book on Prime’s table at L.A.Con IV, you can make a case that a more deserving reader was deprived of Move Under Ground because of my actions. Shame!)

And yet, despite those handicaps, I still managed to enjoy this novel. Mamatas’ pastiche is, of course, completely wasted on me, but the elliptical fashion in which he tells a pretty standard “Road Novel/Heart of Darkness” story seems fresh and inventive: I’ve never read apocalyptic gunfights between humans and monsters quite like the ones in Move Under Ground. Even not knowing much about the high concept can’t hide some of the coolest elements in Mamatas’ story: As a reader, one of my biggest thrills of the year so far was seeing William S. Burrough barge into a scene with guns in both hands, killing off would-be murderers with a split-second timing that has to be deduced from Kerouac/Mamatas’ matter-of-fact narration.

In fact, one of the particular pleasures of the book is in how it presents a conventional horror story with a off-beat writing style, looking in directions that are quite unlike what we’d expect from genre horror. Sometimes, it’s disconcerting: action scenes start in the middle of lengthy paragraphs, and are over just as quickly. The narration is, frankly, more interested in other things. Apocalyptic horror scenes are described with staccato minimalism, whereas musings on the American dream and mundane details of physical movement get far more attention. And through it all, Mamatas’ blend of humour and horror hits a note of pure uneasy joy. Even in marrying two clear influences, this is quite unlike any novel I’ve ever read.

Since I spend a lot of time complaining about the excessive length of many novels these days, I should note that Move Under Ground is exactly the right length for what it is: Any shorter, and the story would be closer to a novella; any longer and the high concept would become tiresome.

Keeping in mind that I’m almost the wrong sort of public for the novel, my generally satisfied reaction to Move Under Ground should be a good sign that the novel is, in fact, accessible to less-educated minds like mine. It also promises good things for my continuing effort to read for the words more than for the plot. In fact, I’m now tempted to go back and have another look at Kerouac’ On The Road

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