Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell

I wanted to like The Resurrectionist; I really did. It's a noirish novel with fantasy elements, in which a comic book is important, about a father and his son, set mostly in a creepy hospital in the fictional old mill town of Quinsigamond, Massachusets. It even has psychotic bikers and guys with anger management issues! It sounded like just my kind of thing.

As it turned out, though, The Resurrectionist -- though undeniably well-written, and full of wonderful sentences and paragraphs -- consistently chose a tone and a sequence of events that set my teeth on edge. It may be a better novel than this review would seem to indicate, but it was not the novel I wanted to love.

While reading it, I kept going back to the publicity materials to figure out O'Connell's intentions, since he repeatedly headed off in directions that annoyed and perplexed me. (Bringing in a stereotypical biker gang, having a very obvious virgin/whore dichotomy, and introducing many interesting characters only to have them wander off and have nothing to do with the story.) I came back several times to one Q&A, where O'Connell said that his original idea was to write a short, direct noir novel, the kind you'd find in a Montana bus stop in 1959. (I don't have his exact wording in front of me.) I eventually came to realize what he meant by that -- he wanted a novel that moved quickly and inevitably down a dangerous path.

But that quick inevitable journey became what a gamer would call a railroad -- a series of events that occur in sequence to a group of people, not arising out of their actions, but happening because the author has his thumb pressed heavily on the scales and is forcing it all to happen the way he wants it.

The main character is Sweeney -- if O'Connell ever snuck in the description "apeneck," I missed it, and I was watching for it -- a pharmacist from Cleveland whose son Danny is in a coma. Sweeney has transferred Danny to the Peck Clinic, in Quinsigamond, Massachussets, and taken a job as the night pharmacist there himself, because the brilliant Doctors Peck, father and daughter, have "cured" a handful of patients from long-term comas. Sweeney, we're told, has anger-management issues, but we only ever see him get angry at inanimate objects. When things get very nasty and frustrating for him later in the book, he never lashes out -- mostly because O'Connell never gives him a moment when he could even try. (There's that railroad again -- the anger issues serve to create tension for the reader, but O'Connell never had any intention of firing that particular Chekov Gun.)

The Peck Clinic is large and creepy and old, full of corridors that go unexpected places -- such as the attached home of the Peck family -- and odd characters who talk around things. It's very close to being a parody of the "nasty hospital" or of an insane asylum from a pulpy '50s novel. But O'Connell wants us to take it seriously -- he needs us to take it seriously. The biker gang has similar issues -- it's clearly over the top, but needs to be grounded and real.

Sweeney obsessively collects and re-reads the few issues Limbo Comics, a series that his son loved before his accident, as a way of trying to make a connection to the now-comatose boy. And the narrative of Limbo Comics becomes part of The Resurrectionist -- about every third or fourth chapter retells an issue of Limbo.

Retells. In prose. In prose that is clearly not Sweeney's voice, nor is it (obviously) the original script for the comic, nor can it be the comic itself. O'Connell is a novelist, so he thinks in terms of words, but he's trying to tell a story of a comic based on a TV show, without describing anything of the comic itself. There's not one single description of a panel or a drawing; the Limbo Comics chapters tell the story as if it were prose.

If those chapters had been in the voice of someone -- Sweeney, his son, anyone -- or had been descriptions of the TV show (which they feel more like), they could have worked as O'Connell wanted them to. But, as it is, they're weirdly translated out of what should have been their true form into a flat description of the story of a comic without any reference to how that comic looks. O'Connell is calling this a comic book, but not relating anything about it that makes it comics; he's grabbing hipness by proxy, but not understanding what makes a comic different from another medium.

My other major problem with The Resurrectionist, without getting too specific, is that the lesson at the end is that violence and wishful thinking will make everything better. I don't insist that novels have positive morals, or any morals at all, but I do ask that they not have stupid, counterproductive morals.

The title presumably is meant to resonate with the elder Dr. Peck -- who is in this novel very little -- but it's a direct reference to a late event in the Limbo Comics chapters.

I might well come back to another novel of O'Connell's; his writing is evocative and muscular, with an ear for strangeness, especially in the Limbo Comics chapters. But this particular book is half-baked; it's clear that, as he wrote it, O'Connell kept increasing the scope and importance of the Limbo Comics chapters, but it doesn't appear as if he ever went back and rethought the Sweeney main plot to accommodate it. The two plot lines have thematic connections, but nothing more solid than that, and that just wasn't enough for me by the end. I would have preferred to have read a Limbo novel, honestly -- those were the strongest, most distinctive parts of this novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment