Soft Skull, 2007, 151 pages, C$15.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-933368-43-6
Nick Mamatas has long been known for being an iconoclastic Internet personality, and his fiction is no different. Would you , for instance, expect his latest novel to be a young adult novel promoting the joys of home-built nuclear weaponry and secession from the United States?
Well, maybe. After all, Mamatas’ first novel-length book was Move Under Ground, a horror-story retelling of Kerouac’s On The Road featuring elements of the Cthulhu mythos. After that, no one can really predict what Mamatas will write next.
Suffice to say that the subject matter isn’t the only difference between Move Under Ground and this new book. From the dense Kerouac pastiche, Mamatas switches gears to deliver a chatty first-person narration from a telepathic twelve year-old (he’s not smart; he just reads smart people’s minds). The first chapter is a little gem as young Herbert Weinberg describes how his father manages to build a home-made atomic bomb from dumpster-diving and mail-order material. (I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mamatas read the first chapter at a Chicago event; it was hard not to imagine his voice narrating the rest of the novel.)
It’s a good start, but the rest of the book quickly heads in meatier territory. Now equipped with a nuclear deterrent, the Weinbergian household declares independence from the US and, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, eventually finds traction for its claims. The US government, not to mention Herbert’s mom, don’t find this funny or acceptable: the rest of the novel is concerned about Weinbergia’s attempts to remain independent, Herbert’s efforts in making sense of the situation and the reader’s delight in finding where Mamatas is taking the novel.
To say that it’s meant as satire is to understate the tone of the novel. But there’s a real message under each joke, and Under My Roof goes much farther than expected in its exploitation of its theme. Nationhood, suggests Mamatas, is a consensual illusion. It just takes a few denials to put it at risk. And if that’s subversive, well, why not?
Still, it’s possible to read through the novel and not think about the deeper issues: the prose is deceptively easy, and the pacing just keeps going. I’m not so fond of the last act (which seems to diffuse the narrative build-up and then scatter in multiple directions), but Mamatas is a writer who seems to spend a lot more time thinking about prose than about plot: complaining about the structure of the book is missing the point of it.
It’s not as if there isn’t much more to enjoy. Mamatas credibly describes the mechanics of nuclear secession, imagining the media circus, practical issues and political repercussions of such an event with wonderful small details and plenty of quick jokes. Much like the Atkins diet, secession quickly becomes a popular fad and narrator Herbert is in the middle of the attention storm. Given everything else going on, will he have time to grow up?
There’s a lot to like about Under My Roof, from the narrator to the satire to the understanding that Mamatas can write whatever he wants and it’s going to be worth reading. What are you waiting for? Under My Roof is short enough to be read in one lazy sitting, and it’s going to stick in your mind. If you’re really smart, you’ll even lend it to the brightest twelve-year old you know, and see what he does with it. Just don’t lend him your credit card, and start paying attention if he goes out and purchases a garden gnome.