Tag Archives: Nick Mamatas

Sensation, Nick Mamatas

PM Press, 2011, 198 pages, $14.95 tp, ISBN 978-1-60486-354-3

One of the things I most enjoy about Nick Mamatas’s writing (fiction and non-fiction alike, including his blog) is a sense of being challenged.  He sees outside mainstream conventions, whether you’re discussing genre fiction protocols, market expectations, political beliefs or social niceties.  To faithful Mamatas readers, Sensation reads exactly like the kind of novel that only he could write, which is to say something different from anything else he’s done so far.

A plot summary does no service to the book: If you need plot, Sensation is loosely about an age-old war between spiders and wasps in which humans are dupes, and a woman leaving her lover to become the vanguard of a radical yet indefinable political movement.

But frankly, Sensation is about other things than plot.  It’s about political revolutions and internet memes.  It’s about relationships and the way people hurt each other.  It’s about first-person narration from the viewpoint of a vastly-distributed hive intelligence.  More than anything else, it’s about prose and how it doesn’t necessarily have to be a support for plot in order to be interesting.

As an old-school genre reader, I’m not typically a good public for that kind of experiment.  But Sensation somehow works, in part because it’s a rollercoaster of good bits and in other parts because it goes fishing so widely for its references.  Like one of the good-old spoof comedies in which the plot served as a clothesline for the choice gags, Sensation goes from one striking piece of writing to the other, using just enough plot to make sure it still hangs together.

But even as an old-school genre reader, I also found plenty to like in Mamatas’s display of ideas, set-pieces, form-shifting and other kind of narrative experimentation.  Sensation’s straight-ahead base narrative occasionally breaks into text messaging, interview transcripts, news articles, screenshots, typographic play and other unconventional ways to tell a story.  Mamatas is able to write fluently about matters technical, political and emotional: detailing the breakup of a relationship in one passage, explaining how to marginalize dissent in another, or describing how the World Wide Web is taken down in a third.  Deeply steeped into the pop culture references of the net-savvy, Sensation does feel like a novel that couldn’t have been written ten years ago or ten years from now.

Not being a regular reader of even mildly experimental fiction, I suspect that Sensation isn’t all that daring: It’s still understandable, for one thing, it’s remarkably funny at times, and thanks to its core premise there’s no denying that it’s a Science Fiction novel.  Not that I’m complaining –in fact, I think that by setting Sensation in a middle ground between genre and experimental fiction, he’ll be able to grab readers from both spheres without scaring them with too much weirdness.  (I suspect that the hard sell won’t be the SF to the experimental readers, but the experimentation to the SF readers.)

But as funny, insightful or clever as Sensation can be, it’s not exactly a comfort read, or something to mindlessly whittle away the minutes spent on the morning commute.  I found myself reflecting on my own assumptions and biases along the way, recognizing myself in the duped masses that Mamatas describes in Sensation’s margins.  It’s engaging, smarter than its average reader and immensely self-confident in its willingness to dare audiences to keep up.  (Kind of like Mamatas himself, actually.)  Could it have been stronger in its plotting, easier to follow or less flashy in its tweaking of conventions?  Sure, but then we wouldn’t have the novel that Sensation wants to be.

Under my Roof, Nick Mamatas

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.

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