Nervous System, Jan Lars Jensen

Crown, 2004, 273 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 1-55192-687-3

They say that Science Fiction can make you crazy, or that only crazies are interested in Science Fiction. They may be wrong, but it’s not a book like Jan Lars Jensen’s Nervous System that will convince them otherwise.

Observers of the Canadian Science-Fiction scene in the late-nineties probably remember the name: Jensen, after all, was one of the genre’s rising starts, with a few stories in the Tesseracts anthologies (including the deeply disturbing “Domestic Slash and Thrust” in Tesseracts 5 and the Sterlingeseque “Moscow” in Tesseracts 7) His first novel, Shiva 3000, was released in 1999 and then… nothing.

Well, not much from a publishing perspective. In his own life, Jensen was literally being driven crazy by the publication of his first novel. Nervous System is his story: how he became convinced that his novel was going to usher in a new world war, how he attempted suicide and eventually checked himself in a psychiatric institution. His arrival at the psychiatric institution is described in Chapter One: The rest of the book explain how he got there and how he managed to break himself out of his particular madness.

There’s nothing funny about the events described in Nervous System, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the book, which carries a straight edge of dark humour throughout the book, sort of a “Aw shuck, jus’ went crazy of a while: all better now” kind of comfort. This is far more effective than the alternative: not only does it remove the first impulse of simply feeling sorry for Jensen, it allows us to understand what happened a lot better than a drier description of the events.

I was unnerved by how easily I bought into the logic of Jensen’s apocalyptic reasoning. As a sometimes-novelist who actually enjoys the cognitive dissonance of living in two universes at once, I had no trouble seeing how a writer can, to put it charitably, spend far too much time in one’s head. Popular prejudice is that all writers are a bit crazy anyway, and his increasingly frantic discussions with his agent seems to bear out this cliché as he’s reassured that there’s really nothing to worry about. (Alas, the beauty of paranoid reasoning is that this is exactly what they would say.) Heck, his reasoning —that his book would be branded as disrespectful to a major religion and that the consequences of the religious protests would escalate into a nuclear exchange— doesn’t even seem so far-fetched after the “Mohamed Cartoon riots” of early 2006.

I was far more concerned about Jensen’s inability to read for pleasure while deep in his episode: Like many writers, Jensen is foremost a reader, and to see something so basic disappear seems like a betrayal. Despite the subject matter of Nervous System, nothing else in the book quite compares to that episode.

I was very impressed at the readability of this book, and the way Jensen comes across neither as a victim or a hero: His writing is lucid, well-structured in how it gradually spirals out of the initial admission at the psychiatric clinic, believably detailed and almost too clear in how he manages to explain what happened. There is a lucidity to his progressive madness, and one of the book’s strengths is how we can both live inside his state of mind and yet realize how off-reality it is: By the time Jensen suspects that government snipers are stationed outside his place of work, just waiting to take him out, it merely seems like a logical development to the reader.

Jensen, or his editor, are very careful not to even write the words “Science Fiction” until very late in the book: before then, we get hints than Jensen love Stephen King and that Shiva 3000 is a work set in the future, but the actual expression “Science Fiction” is left for after we come to understand what happened to Jensen. Almost as if mentioning the gremlin too soon would cause the readers to reach for unwarranted conclusions.

As it is, I expect that the readership of the book will split in two parts: Those who already know Jensen through his SF publishing history and those who don’t. I’m not sure which group will be best-served by the narrative. On one hand, it’s good to know what happened to Jensen after Shiva 3000: may he come back to literature (any genre, any style) soon enough. On the other hand, it does nothing good to correct the impression that SF appeals to off-kilter minds and upsets them some more. Which may be a badge of distinction to some (who wants to be normal, after all?), but surely not to the extent of a psychotic episode. Regardless of your own fondness (or not) for SF, Nervous System finds a place of choice on the literary autobiographies bookshelf: There has never been a narrative quite like this before. I’m stuck by the idea that if Jensen’s first book may have been the trigger to his madness, his second one may be the keystone of his recovery.

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