Neuropath, Scott Bakker

Penguin Canada, 2008, 306 pages, C$26.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-14-316871-3

Scott Bakker’s Neuropath is a heck of a book despite not being much of a novel. Despite being marketed as a futuristic thriller in which a psychologist is asked to fight a serial killer, it’s really more of an argument, a game between the author and the reader. It’s an attempt to undermine the very foundations of the thriller, to deny the very possibility of a free agent in a genre that is predicated on an active protagonist. I admire it a lot despite not caring for it very much as a thriller.

The first fifty pages are as good as the first few pages of a thriller ever get: Thomas Bible is a psychologist, a teacher and a divorced man trying to make the world better from his children. But everything changes once FBI agents set foot in his office one August morning: They want his help in tracking down a particularly sadistic serial killer who just happens to be Tom’s best friend.

The twist here is central to Neuropath‘s central theme: Our serial killer knows enough about neurology and technology to hack into his victim’s brain and make them kill themselves with glee. But there’s more, because Tom knows that his friend Neil is not killing other people as much as he’s proving an ongoing argument about the nature of consciousness: For someone convinced that consciousness is an illusion, there can be no guilt in murder. And Tom is the audience for the demonstration.

If it seems like an intriguing justification laid atop a fairly standard thriller plot, you’re not too far off from the novel’s intent. Bakker is using the latest real-world discoveries in the field of neurology to argue about whether consciousness really exists as a decision-maker, or if it’s rather a set of confabulation and justifications for a set of unconscious behavior. As disturbing as it may sounds, the more we understand about the inner working of the brain, the less consciousness-as-driver seems likely. Neuropath is an attempt to work out the consequences of such a conclusion, and apply them to the framework of a serial killer mystery.

For the seasoned thriller reader, Neuropath occasionally seems to be doing everything wrong. The novel lathers repetitive exposition sequences, stops dead in its track in-between plot beats, features a main character who can’t be called a protagonist by sheer lack of initiative and reaches a climax thanks to the actions of third parties. Tom has to pop pills to alter his brain chemistry so that he can act, and even that can’t help him but being a witness to the novel’s final moments. You really have to look at the novel at a certain angle in order to appreciate all the genre-tweaking that Bakker does.

Some flaws remains unforgivable no matter how pernicious the rest of the novel wants to be: Neuropath‘s rhythm stops dead between its first third and last half. The females characters tend to have clichéd plot functions. Much of the exposition repeats itself. The ending seems overly abrupt, missing an extra-sarcastic epilogue. In his rush to overturn the conventions of the thriller genre, Bakker seems to forget that they exist because they work, and that shooting them down carries its own price.

My suspicion (and hope) is that the novel will find its audience not among the beach readers looking for another crime thriller, but with seasoned critical readers with a good understanding of genre protocols. The philosophical argument carried by the novel is more interesting that the story it tells, and that may not, indeed, appeal to everyone.

Such is Neuropath: a complex, not entirely comfortable book whose weaknesses aren’t nearly as damaging as you may think, and in fact form part of the novel’s appeal. It may not work all that well as a thriller for various reasons (intentional and unintentional, conscious or unconscious), but I have a hunch that once I’ll tally up my most memorable books of 2008, this one is going to rank fairly high despite its flaws.

[September 2008: No review of Neuropath should exist without at least a glance at Peter Watts’ Blindsight and a few stories such as Daryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”: This “neuropunk” sub-genre of science-fiction is doing some pretty interesting things with the latest research in consciousness, clawing back further and further the notion of free agency and active consciousness. I predict a lot of buzzing around these areas over the next few years.]

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