Monday, July 20, 2009

Resurrection Man

This novel by Sean Stewart is a coming-of-age story that combines elements of magical realism, alternate history, and urban fantasy. Dancing as it does along the borders of several genres, it's natural that it also has some traits of so-called "literary fiction." With all this critical weight behind it, one might think that Resurrection Man is a difficult read; instead is a thoughtful and thought-provoking story in a setting that cries out for more development. The hints and glimmers of how Resurrection Man's world is subtly different than our own usually lead to novels about epic history-changing events. Sean Stewart goes in a completely different direction and provides a homey little story about how those changes are manifest in the everyday lives of the people who live with them. The resulting story is relatively quiet and assuming in comparison with what other authors might attempt, but beneath its surface is a churn of emotions and conflict that unsettle the reader.

Dante Ratkay has returned for a Thanksgiving at home with his family of Hungarian-Americans. Stewart throws the reader into the middle of the family and this strange world with little hesitation as Dante is called upon to perform an autopsy of a suddenly discovered corpse, a doppelganger of himself that has been growing on his dresser as he has been away from the family home. Assisting him is Jet, a similarly aged man whose relationship with Dante is not clear for some time but who grew up in the same home, and Sarah, Dante's younger sister. The first few chapters jump back and forth through time, using the memories of the trio to more fully describe their relationship and their family (made up of them, Mother, Father, and Aunt Sophie) while drawing out the operation in horrific eerie fashion that still leaves the reader unprepared for the results of the autopsy.

The first hints—beyond the doppelganger corpse—that something is different here is the catalog of the three magical items that reside in the house: the dresser on which the corpse is found, a fishing lure, and Grandfather Clock. Not much detail is given about the magic they hold, but the reader is given stories of their puissance to confirm that something is decidedly different. We're also told that Aunt Sophie reads the future by throwing coins. We meet Dante's neighbor, Laura, who practices what appears to be extreme feng shui at an architecture firm and creates charms to ward herself from evil and to commemorate her dead father. These episodes can be seen as the actions of strange individuals until Sarah practices a comedy routine that is rife with cultural and historical allusion. This may be the most heavy-handed moment in the book: it's an original way to describe this strange new world we have found ourselves in, but it really fails as a comedy routine. What it tells the reader, however, is that this is a world where magic works and has only started to do so fairly recently. As a result, for example, Robert Kennedy is never assassinated since the authorities take seriously the oracle they previous ignored when she told them about JFK's impending assassination. But this anecdote is really the only manifestation of the magic that separates this world from our own on a macro scale; the rest of the novel is more concerned with what is happening on a personal level.

We find out that Jet is not as human as he appears to be; he is distant and feels himself to be different from the Ratkays, not least of all because of the strange butterfly birthmark on his face. He's Puckish and whimsical with more than a hint of malice in his actions. He's also a photographer and his long descriptions of his photos provide deeper insight into the members of his family as well as into him. We also find out that Dante may be more than human—an "angel," someone with the magical powers that are present in this world. Unlike most fantasy magic, which gives the user power over all sorts of activities, this world's magic appears to give each angel skill in only one area, such as telekinesis or precognition. Dante's power, which it turns out he has been avoiding using for most of his life, is somehow associated with death. And so the results of Dante's autopsy propel the novel forward in two similar directions; convinced he himself is about to die, Dante promises Jet he will do everything he can to find out Jet's origin, even if it means learning to use own latent power.

I recently wrote about The Gate of Ivrel and the problem of familiarizing the reader with a world they don't know anything about or, in this case, one they know a great deal about but whose discrepancies are unknown. Uncovering those discrepancies are often the great "reveals" of alternate history novels and the primary motivation for reading them, but the task of acquainting the reader with the setting is universal to speculative fiction. Stewart solves this problem in Resurrection Man by having his characters chase these two mysteries, Dante's and Jet's true nature. As a result, the reader learns very little about how this world differs from our own, and what is learned is through the effect of the mysteries, rather than their cause. Most of the research is turned inward, into the lives of their family and how much they don't really know about the people they thought they knew so well. The magic really is a background to the main action of the novel and adds a frisson of the fantastic in what could otherwise be a standard coming-of-age story.

The relatively regular macro plot—coming home to discover who you really are—pushes Resurrection Man towards literary fiction. The different narrative techniques that Stewart uses also add to its feeling of "literariness." But unlike many genre novels with pretensions of something greater, there is not the feeling of art for art's sake, which ultimately is a fine gauge of the artfulness of the writer. The narrative shifts and moves about, but for reasons related to the plot rather than any external forces. And there are moments of weird horror worked in, especially when Dante and Jet go to visit what is essentially the guild hall for local angels.

I really enjoyed this book, and once I found time to read through it for an interval of more than 15 minutes or so, I found it to be very compelling and strongly written. Resurrection Man does take patience and time to read, but where it ends up is tremendously rewarding. Jet's origin is nowhere near what anyone thinks it might be, and Dante's power turns out to be more terrifying than he might imagine. But the proof of the success of the novel lies in this: when I was done reading it, not only could I read more, I wanted to actively find more. Stewart shows delightful craftsmanship in Resurrection Man: it not only acts as a page-turner of a novel whose ending was a delight, it also is a fine starting point for discussion of the different literary aspects of what makes up good writing.

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