Minister Faust

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Minister Faust

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Minister Faust

Del Rey, 2007, 390 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-46637-3

This, dear readers, is the decadent era of the superhero in pop culture. There are now so pervasive, such a part of the entertainment-retail complex that there is nowhere for them to go but down, preferably in a cloud of ridicule. The symptoms are clear, and clearer as I re-write this in September 2008: After HANCOCK, it’s clear that it’s a free-for-all in the superhero field, and notwithstanding oddities like BATMAN RETURNS, it’s clear that humor is one way of dealing with a now-overly familiar topic.

That’s tying Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain to a heavy conceptual framework, but it’s also true that Faust is perverting the comic-book superhero tradition in two ways in his second novel, one of which is obvious from the get-go, with the other becoming apparent only as the novel goes on and maintains a facade of false humor.

(Readers overly sensitive to spoilers may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review.)

The first of Faust’s hacks on the superhero form is well-presented in the packaging of the novel. Written as if from the pen of “Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman”, psychologist to superheros, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain is re-titled Unmasked! When Being a Superhero Can’t Save You From Yourself and presented as a self-help book for the average hyper-hominid. If you’ve read any pop-psychology book before, this will feel instantly familiar, as Dr. Brain can’t help but structure her narrative around common super-heroic psychological issues, and pepper the narrative with a thick cloud of well-titled syndromes and cute acronyms.

It’s not your average self-help book though, because it does tell a story. As Dr. Brain is tasked with treating the dysfunctional relationship of the top members of the Fantastic Order Of Justice (FOOJ), some of whom are not meant to be riffs on existing superheroes. Who would associate Batman with pro-fascist The Flying Squirrel? Who could recognize Superman in the quasi-moronic Omnipotent Man? There isn’t any link at all between Wonder-Woman and Iron Lass! Well, oh, okay. (Other winks to superhero canon are peppered through the narrative, two of the earliest ones being “the city of Los Ditkos” and the “Crisis of Infinite Dearths.” )

But as Dr. Brain deals with her super-powered subjects, another external threat emerges, linked with the escape of super-villains, an upcoming election within the FOOJ and the death of one of the greatest superheroes of all times. What happens as the novel goes on become stranger and stranger, as one of the story’s most lucid character is systematically belittled by the narrator. The character’s racially-charged rhetoric may be overt, but it’s strange to see him marginalized, especially given Faust’s own minority-friendly first novel.

But nothing is an accident, and the unreliability of the narrator eventually becomes a window through which we understand that Faust’s building an entirely different critique of the superhero genre, one that obliquely discusses the nature and social ramification of the power fantasies implicit in the superhero genre. Brain herself may be either evil or clueless, but that doesn’t change anything to the way the novel says one thing and means another in its closing chapters. It does place readers in a curious position, though: After a fun start, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain becomes less and less amusing, until the smiles become bitter with resentment.

As a novel, it’s a clear step up from the occasionally-messy The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. The style is snappy, the characters all have distinctive voices, the twists are striking and the entire novel seems far more controlled. It’s a mystery why Faust hasn’t received more attention for this unnerving, but worthwhile second novel. As a decadent take on the superhero genre, it’s about as good as it gets.

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, Minister Faust (Malcolm Azania)

Del Rey, 2004, 531 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-46635-7

Now that was one interesting fantasy novel.

Interesting as in different, interesting as in readable, but also interesting as in flawed. A too-quick plat description of The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad would be something like “the lives of two twentysomething friends changes dramatically after one of them falls for a mysterious woman”. But given that this encompasses everything from DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? to WHITE SKIN, maybe it’s best to describe how this novel is different from the standard Echo-Gen lad-lit template.

For one thing, our two protagonists are pure-breed Science Fiction geeks. Hamza may be more of a media/comics fan whereas Yehat is closer to the hard-SF genre, but that doesn’t make them any less geeky. They’re the protagonists and that makes them cool –especially, I suspect, to the intended readership. But their comfortable wasted lives (Hamza washes dishes for a living; Yehat is a video store clerk) spent in pop-culture ephemera are about to get interesting (as in unpredictable, as in weird, as in dangerous) as soon as Nubian goddess Sherem starts taking an interest in one of them.

I wish SF could be diverse enough that a novel featuring two black Muslim Edmonton-area heroes wouldn’t in itself be worth singling out. But it’s not, and The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad is a welcome bit of difference. The novel soon delves deep into mythology, and it’s thankfully unlike anything west-European writers have done before. Minister Faust (pen name of Edmonton activist Malcolm Azania) bridges the SF culture with his own, and the result is a book that’s quite unlike anything before, melding modern pop hipness with African roots.

This difference carries through to the prose style, which is driven by the same cooler-than-thou energy one often sees in mainstream novels destined to the younger generation. The prose style is packed with CAPITAL LETTERS-

-abrupt line breaks-

-and tons of references that will be lost on anyone who failed pop-culture 101. The book is set in 1995 for some reason (perhaps because that’s Faust’s “best year” as far as pop references are concerned), but it certainly feels like the work of a modern young writer.

It can be a lot of fun, but as with most first efforts, Coyote Kings is also harmed by a number of miscalculations, or unsuccessful attempts to do too much when little was required.

First, it should be said that the novel is told through multiple narrators: almost a dozen of them. While most of the novel is told by Hamza and Yehat, many of the antagonists get two or three chapters in which to say their piece. This causes a number of problems: It’s confusing (the first few lines of every chapter are spent figuring out who’s talking), it’s unnecessary (even bordering on gratuitous showboating, as if Faust was trying to show that he, too, can write accents) and it takes the action away from the compelling protagonists. Hamza and Yehat are the core of the novel, and every moment spent away from them seems superfluous. While I will recognize that the antagonists’ viewpoints often present information that would otherwise be unaccessible to our heroes, they also feature “the FanBoys”, maybe the most unlikely aspect of the entire novel. Faust smothers his novel with terminal hipness, but even lively writing can’t hide the unevenness of tone that can make Coyote Kings a bit of a bother.

Then there is the ending, which culminates almost as an easy afterthought. While there is definitely a conclusion to the events of the book, it seems to be one borne out of desperation. At least one major loose end remains untied; I wouldn’t care to guess whether this means a sequel, but there’s a sloppiness to the last few chapters that is really annoying.

This doesn’t make Coyote Kings a disappointment, but that’s because it’s so different that the difference itself overwhelms the annoyance. Still, it makes it difficult to praise the novel beyond the prose and the unusual setting. It could have been shorter, better and more focused, but it’s not… and that’s really a shame because the rest of it works quite well.