Sunday, 6 April 2008

Richard Morgan, Black Man (2007)

Here's what I think: there’s a reason why a certain breed of hard-boiled thriller is called noir.

Morgan’s Black Man is a near-future tech thriller/adventure yarn, like all the other titles on the Clarke 08 list. It's the most thrillery of these thrillers, though, and earns its thrillerishness (its, dare-I-say, thrillerocity) not just by providing actual readerly thrills but by making a formal and aesthetic virtue out of its generic necessities. This is a book that works as thriller and simultaneously as a deconstruction of the logic of the thriller. It provides excitement, and levers open the disconcerting space between our enjoyment of that excitement and our unease at the being-in-the-world that generates it. Clever, that.

Morgan’s titular protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is a former genetic infantryman (known in Morgan’s universe as a ‘thirtreen’, or more derogatively as a ‘twist’) now working as a deromanticised James Bond. To be more precise he's a James Bladerunner, for his job is hunting down other rogue thirteens. Supercompetent, intelligent and good at his violent job, Marsalis is sometimes physically shaken but never emotionally stirred--until, that is, he teams up with sexy hardboiled Turkish-American cop Sevgi Ertekin. Together they cross continents to track down a rogue thirteen serial killer. They chase clues, gets into fights and have a quantity of squelchily described sexual intercourse, until she suffers the generic fate of the love-interest in this sort of story, and Marsalis is given sufficient if not necessary cause for his big finale. This perhaps makes the books sound formulaic; but at every point in this familiar narrative trajectory the writing is canny enough to excavate what lies beneath his popular narrative conventions, and to consider what made it popular in the first place.

The deal with Marsalis, and with his kind, is that they are genengineered throwbacks to an earlier, tougher, less sociable model of homo sapiens: an individualistic human type effectively bred out of the gene pool twenty-thousand years ago because they didn’t fit the new logic of social civilization. ‘It’s only once humans settle down in agricultural communities that these guys start to be a problem,’ one character notes. ‘Why? Because they won’t fucking do as they’re told. They won’t work in the fields and bring in the harvest for some kleptocratic old bastard with a beard. That’s when they start to get bred out, because the rest of us, the wimps and the conformists, band together under that selfsame kleptocratic bastard’s paternal holy authority, and we go out with our torches and our farming implements and exterminate those poor fuckers’ [279].

Most hard-man thrillers and adventures simply take their premise—the valorization of the self-sufficient individual male hero—for granted. Morgan doesn’t. The point of his novel is to unpack what being that sort of person actually entails: Natty Bumppo, John Carter, James Bond, the Man with No Name, Jason Bourne. This goes beyond making plain that violence does damage to the perpetrator as well as victim. It becomes a critique of masculinity itself, a dramatization of the notion that contemporary society has committed ‘virilicide’ by purging itself of the hypertrophic vir in favour of more socially skilled individuals. Our's, as one of the novel’s character notes, is ‘a world in which manhood’s going out of style. Advancing wave of the feminised society, the alpha males culling themselves through suicide and … drugs’ [113]. These ideas aren’t original to Morgan—he cites Richard Wrangham and Matt Ridley in his acknowledgements—and Black Man isn’t the first novel to dramatise them: it was also the theme of, for example, Pahunik’s Fight Club. Indeed, in a broader sense, this conflict between these two modes of life, solitary man or social animal, is behind Scott’s Waverly novels, and goes back at least to Homer—whose Achilles is one prototype for Morgan’s Marsalis.

Morgan does a thoroughgoing and rather brilliant job on this idea. Testosterone, he tells us, is a dangerous and even malicious chemical. Undeniably it provides us with thrills and a vicarious sense of kicking against the pricks, but this book never lets us forget the malice. Pride, sex, patriotism (one memorable aper├žu: ‘anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet’ 299), alpha-male social rituals. Pff. I tell you what: I’m an adult male, six-foot-two in my socks. I work out: free weights mostly. I can handle myself. I could totally make my way in this alpha-male world, man. You know? Well ... I would, except only that my wife won’t let me. Apparently I’ve got to finish the ironing first. But the principle is the same, yeah?

In the more race-sensitive US Black Man has been retitled Thirteen. Some critics have derided this, but in some ways I prefer the American title. It is more evasive than the UK title, and in that sense it doesn’t fit a book that is one of the least evasive, one of the most fist-in-the-reader’s-face, I have ever read. (It's one of the joys of Morgan’s writing that he always turns it up to eleven all the time. In the hands of a less skilful writer that would lead to gush, sprawl or pseudo-Tarantino excess; but Morgan’s broader theme is precisely excess, and he knows how to operate the heavy machinery of his own fiction). But one thing the US title does is highlight just how North American a book this is. Marsalis himself is British, and the novel flaps its wings from Turkey to Latin America via Mars, but its soul is America: a future Disunited States that has broken into two chunks: the Rim States on the western coast and the northeast and the unpleasant, fundamentalist Red-State Jesusland in the middle. Thirteen is an unlucky number (another slang term for the likes of Marsalis is ‘unluck’); but thirteen is also the number of orginal American colonies, and one of the more subtly woven threads running through the book is the notion of the Thirteens as a new human endeavour, a sort of genetic new found land. The old world views them with hostility, yet women (it seems) find them irresistible; and to a certain extent the book itself, and many of its readers, follow the women in this--a minor flaw in the overall pattern of the book is the way almost all the characters are revealed to be genetic variations on the baseline human model by the end. But otherwise, as with Dick's original androids, it's hard to shake a sense that violence notwithstanding these people are better than old humans.

Yes? Maybe not. Thirteens tend toward the sociopathic, it is true, and leave a trail of injury and death in their wakes; but then again in Morgan’s universe pretty much everybody is like that. As a South American gangster points out to Marsalis, when the Conquistadors swarmed over the Aztec empire they slaughtered so many ‘the ground was carpeted with corpses and the condors fed for weeks on the remains … soldiers tore nursing infants from the breast and tossed them still living to their attack dogs, or swung them by the heels against rocks to smash their skulls… These were not demons, and they were not genetically engineered abominations like you. These were men.’ [333]. Well, quite. And the 23rd century seems no better: crammed with the criminal, the violent, the exploitative, the religiously-bonkers, the psychotically unhinged. In such a world, Marsalis (as the conventions of this mode of writing require) is more likeable and less violent than the various horrid people up against which he comes.

There are some problems with Black Man/Thirteen as a novel. For one thing it is too long: 647 pages in the bound proof I read (546 pages in final mmp form). It starts with a 'before the Bond film credits sequence', in which Marsalis assassinates a rogue thirteen and ends up in a Jesusland jail, that, whilst perfectly efficiently done, doesn’t really grip. Only when its Roy-Batty-a-like villain hijacks a Mars-Earth spaceship (eating the passengers en route) and begins a north-American killing spree, and Marsalis is recruited by the authorities to track him down, does the book really get a grip on a the reader’s throat. Even then, the denouement is dragged out a little two long, through nearly two hundred pages of twist, counter-twist and final wham-bang. The relentlessly technicolor kiss-kiss bang-bang sometimes loses, or perhaps overloads, our attention. That said, the writing is of a very high calibre. Morgan is as good a stylist as anybody on the Clarke 08 list (Sarah Hall perhaps excepted; although's he's more consistent than her, and knows better how to subordinate style to overall project): the action is efficiently and viscerally described; description is evocative; explication is always to the point and never infodumpy; the dialogue is good (people don't actually talk that way in, like, real-life; but then again people don't actually talk that way in Dickens, Proust or Beckett: what I mean is that Morgan's dialogue is perfectly fitted to its various roles: plot motion, character, flavour and atmosphere).

On the other hand the fact that Morgan writes as well as he does perhaps disguises how thoroughly cinematic an author he is. He structures his books like a film: a sequence of visual-setups and visual payoffs, paragraph breaks used to punctuate the narrative in a way suggestive of panning and cutting, dialogue written to be spoken: it’s all rapidly kinetic, picturing motion. But this is a mixed blessing: the overall trajectory of the book would work more effectively as a hundred minutes of cinema than it does as several days of reading, something that has to do with the beat and pace of its story. Of course, the danger then is that the story becomes Transporter II instead of the punchily intelligent ideas-driven novel that Morgan has written. Ideas don’t usually play well on the big screen.

It is probably true to say that Morgan’s ideas occupy a different strata of the novel than his action-adventure spectacles. Emotionally, from its Blade Runner opening to its Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending, the book marks out one path; intellectually it is pulling, creatively but slightly awkwardly, in another. Many of the action-sequences are extremely and viscerally effective (one in particular, where Marsalis is ambushed at night in the middle of South American nowhere by dozens of armed men, and disposes of them all with a shovel is especially well done). But the novel is what we have; and what's most interesting about the novel is its ideas. These are wrapped in a tooled and polished thriller shell, but live with you after the temporary excitements of that sort of things has faded. Black Man is black gold.


Jonathan said...

Nice review Adam.

I didn't enjoy the book as much as you did though my negatives were much the same as yours.

I think that the idea of producing something full of sex and violence while simultaneously musing on the nature of sex and violence is an old spiel but it's always tricky to integrate the two.

For example, Silly Games integrates the two by showing violence and then wagging its finger at the audience.

300 deconstructs the violence and sex of the action film by turning it up to 11 and turning the whole thing into a drag queen melodrama.

I thought Black Man struggled to integrate the two elements. Morgan would write exciting stuff and then have idea bits in which he'd shift down a gear. On the whole, it worked as the "talky bits" served as palate cleansers in between the action scenes but I definitely got the impression that it was a book of two distinct parts. More so than in many works that deal with a similar topic.

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