Monday, October 15, 2012

Empire State

I keep a list of books that I want to read, mostly gathering it from reviews from all over, including the Internet and magazines. I also look at forthcoming book lists to see what my favorite authors are doing, usually putting their next offerings on my to-read list. The list is fairly large, so it sometimes takes me a while to get to things on it, and when I come to a first book by a new author, I’m generally hard-pressed to remember what it is that attracted me to the book in the first place. Was it a review, an advertisement? Did I like the cover art? Such was not the case with Adam Christopher’s Empire State. Just looking at the blurbs, I had no difficulty remembering what had grabbed my attention about this book. Alternate history 1930s New York City with superheroes? I’m there!

It starts out promising enough, a small-time gangster named Rex, on the run from a rival mob, crashes his car and escapes into a crowd watching New York’s two superheroes, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate duking it out against the backdrop of an uncompleted Empire State Building. Both heroes use rocket suits (a la The Rocketeer) and their battle lights up the sky. One hero wins decidedly and the crowd’s mixed reaction allows Rex to slip away unnoticed. But the events have consequences that nobody on the scene could have imagined. The story jumps to detective Rad Bradbury, a fairly stereotypical private eye from the period—living out of the back room of his office and avoiding divorce papers from his wife—who takes on an attractive female client, looking for her missing partner.

The novel becomes even more noir, as Rad’s narrative reveals that his city, which he refers to as the Empire State, is in perpetual Wartime with an unseen enemy, forcing rationing and prohibition laws. It’s always raining in the Empire State, and fog and clouds restrict sight of anything more than a few miles away from the island city. And for some reason, it’s almost always night. The phone in Rad’s office rings often but he is never able to get to it before it stops. Christopher evokes the same suspenseful texturing as the underrated movie Dark City, with something just as disturbing at its core. However, Christopher begins to lose control of that texturing, building convoluted level after level that eventually confuses even his characters, so that while the action is thrilling and the ideas interesting, the reader really has no idea what’s going on. We just have to trust that the private dick with the heart of gold is going to work it out.

In some ways this is no different from the best noir stories, which seem to involve a number of characters whose real goals and purposes remain obscure to the reader. And somehow the detective can piece them all together due to his innate, nearly supernatural, ability to read character and motivation in the people he meets. But Empire State suffers because the characters and their motivations are complicated by the revelation of an alternate dimension with doppelgangers of dubious motivation who apparently move back and forth across the dimensional divide with less difficulty than what might be imagined. And every time the characters provide a rule set for how something works, whether it be the culture of the Empire State or the physics of the dimensions, that rule set ends up being broken. And of course, like the best noir stories, characters perform double- and triple-crosses, again made more complicated by the doppelgangery as well as the supposed motivation not being clear in the first place.

Some characters want the dimensional rift closed for reasons that are never made completely clear. Other characters want to keep the rift open because they feel that destroying it will destroy the cities on both sides of the rift. And then some characters do contradictory things, working at their own purposes and which only seem somewhat tangential to the existence of the rift in the first place. Of course, there are allusions to the world that we know as well, further clouding the circumstances as the import of those allusions is never played out—there’s a cult based on a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent, but why that book and its hysteria regarding comic books is never made clear (let alone why people would follow it).

One of the most defining traits of noir fiction is that the detective doesn’t move from clue to clue as in true detective fiction, like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Instead, the detective is led around by the nose, getting kidnapped or beat up and following leads down blind alleys, somehow gleaning scraps of important information from the people he interacts with. I’ve always felt that the detective is a surrogate from the reader, making manifest the reader’s role in most detective fiction—being led from place to place without any real control over direction and picking up what clues they can through observation. But with Empire State, the framework is precarious and the reader is especially aware that they are being led about without much real hope of figuring out what is going on. None of the characters are given very much depth, usually another hallmark of noir fiction, so after a while I felt like I was being batted back and forth by characters I didn’t care much about one way or another. This ended up making a book that began with potential and strong ideas become a trudge, a tedious quest to find out how it all gets resolved, in the hopes of it getting better.

What Empire State needed more than anything else was a good edit, a tightening up. Noir stories generally move fast, but this one gets bogged down in its own complexity. The potential for a strong story was there but was never met. Adam Christopher shows promise—and has several more books on the way, including a sequel to Empire State—and he clearly knows comics and science fiction tradition. I look forward to the growth from this flawed start.

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