Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow

I had high hopes going into Shambling Towards Hiroshima -- possibly unsustainably high hopes -- based on the power and clarity of Morrow's great short novel City of Truth, the last time he committed the novella-as-book. Astute readers have already assumed my conclusion -- no reviewer starts off by talking about "high hopes" and then goes on to be thrilled that they were met. (It's in the little blue rulebook we're all issued -- #385.)

Shambling Towards Hiroshima shows definitively that Morrow never gives up on any of his obsessions; he's still as concerned with the Cold War and nuclear annihilation as he was in This Is the Way the World Ends, twenty years and a whole world ago. This time, instead of imagining the bitter, battered end of the Atomic Age, he's reconfigured the beginning of it.

It's 1945, but not our 1945. V-E day has already occurred, and it's only June. Monster-movie actor Syms Thornley is deep into filming for his latest Corpuscula movie, playing an animated corpse who, this time out, gets super-intelligence. But he's soon to get the biggest role of his life -- a secret acting job for the Department of the Navy.

In this world, the Army's Manhattan Project isn't the only superweapon under development -- and isn't even the one closest to completion. The Navy has its own Knickerbocker Project, designed to create mutated, fire-breathing giant iguanas as weapons of mass terror. Yes, you read that right. Morrow can be very funny, but he plays this one straight -- the idea is funny, but the execution is dead serious.

Even with that, there's another, uniquely Morrowian twist: there is to be a demonstration of the destructive power of giant mutant iguanas to a Japanese envoy, but that demonstration can not, for reasons of secrecy, be done with a full-size giant iguana. And the juvenile iguanas are docile and loving, unlike their ferocious full-size forms. So the destruction of a carefully-constructed model of a Japanese city must be done by a man in a suit -- though the Japanese can never suspect that. And Thornley, being the finest man-in-a-rubber-suit actor of his generation, is tapped by the FBI to become that model-sized killer giant iguana.

On top of the giant-iguana stuff, there's a more typical Hollywood plotline, with Thornley's screenwriter girlfriend, her greatest script, and the usual unscrupulous and unpleasant movie types. But the book is essentially about Thornley playing not-Godzilla to end WWII and save the lives of hundreds of thousands or more Japanese. But Morrow has never been known as a master of the happy ending, and it's never safe to bet against the apocalypse in his novels.

The whole story is narrated by Thornley many decades later. He's sitting in a hotel room, immediately after receiving a major honor at a convention in Baltimore, madly typing away to get the whole story out so he can then dive towards the pavement, presumably out of guilt at his actions. (As with many Morrow heroes, he feels immense guilt for things that he didn't do or aren't his fault.)

The transformation in Shambling Towards Hiroshima -- re-fusing Godzilla and the atomic bomb, and swapping their roles -- is audacious, but not entirely successful. The Navy's plan is, frankly, utterly insane, and Morrow sells it as well as he can, but he doesn't have the fevered prose style that might possibly make it believeable. And, unfortunately, the Hollywood material has very little to do with the giant-iguana plot, leaving the book to shift gears between two nearly independent stories repeatedly.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a deeply Morrovian book: no one but Morrow could have thought of it or written it. And the concept is breathtakingly audacious. But it doesn't come together as it needs to, for all of Thornley's Method acting inside the Gorgantis suit, smashing a perfect model of Tokyo. It's definitely worth reading for Morrow fans, but first-timers should dig up City of Truth, Towing Jehovah, or Only Begotten Daughter.

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