Friday, 5 December 2014

Review, N0S 4R2 by Joe Hill

Okay, okay, okay. Sorry. My excuse would be it was November and I was doing Nano, but I finished on the 20th, so it's a pretty lame excuse. Also, I haven't posted regularly since mid October so... mumble mumble, something, social anxiety, mumble.

But let's not talk about sad things! Let's talk about horror novels!

When Joe Hill published N0S 4A2 in the UK he was forced to modify the title to N0S 4R2 because the eponymous pun on that notorious German word was lost somewhere over the Atlantic. I've been meaning to read it since it was released around this time last year, and I finally managed it. So:

I liked this book (I know I say this a lot, but it's true) and I am really taken by Hill's blending of emotional depth and real darkness. His characters are fuck-ups; they make mistakes, they hurt people, they do and say things that are obscenely ugly; but they are also capable of great love, of self-sacrifice. There is very little judgement in Hill's world-view, because even as he shows us the ways in which we have messed up irrevocably, he also presents us with the possibility of healing, of redemption. His characters are broken by life, beaten up and knocked down, but they are never incapable of being their best selves. That was all there in N0S 4R2, and that was all to the good.

The storytelling is ace, as well. Terse, brutal and winding, Hill is casual with atrocity, laying down his cards with an unsettling rapidity, leaving ugly images that will grip your guts for days to come. Maybe it isn't scary - he hasn't had me jumping at shadows since Heart-Shaped Box - but it is horrifying. You will ache with a need for everything to come out okay, and you will weep at the prospect that it won't. You will weep for his characters, too, knowing no happy ending can fully repair the damage done to them by the narrative and by themselves. And the ending? Startling and unexpected - despite my protests - it worked in the manner of an denouement that slots perfectly into place.

But in this otherwise wonderful book, there is a flaw. Or perhaps it isn't a flaw.

The heart of novel is the monstrous character of its villain, Charlie Manx. He alone failed to convince. Don't get me wrong, he was engagingly warped. His diction was elevated, making his talk of innocence, his euphemisms wry, self-mocking. The quiet, forceful bitterness with which he promulgated his bigoted interpretations of the world called to mind a 'type' I recognise from English Literature, the world-weary, high-status villain - erudite, amusing and coldly wrong-headed. He struck me as someone who knew the evil that he did, but continued more from a vindictive precision than any real commitment.

Yet the sympathetic characters referred to him as 'dumb', as a hick, as good-ol'-boy-gone-wrong. They claimed that he 'really believed' in what he was doing. Cue cognitive dissonance. It felt as though I was being shown one thing, yet told another. In a bad writer, I would feel that this was a refusal to surrender the premise of an earlier draft, the insistence of forcing the teller's meaning upon the reader's perception - but I think Hill is a better writer than that.

What I believe was occurring was a cultural misunderstanding. English - as spoken in the UK - is a language of puns and evasions. It is entirely possible that an adult might twist a euphemism in front of a child ["fiddling with his fiddlestick"] as a private joke without any suggestion of vulgarity or barnyard bad manners about it. We have elevated innuendo for to an art-form, a game enjoyed by educated. Simply listen to any radio broadcast of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue. Or my dad's Father of the Bride speech.

By reading this into Charlie Manx, I was assuming that this was the case everywhere. Perhaps what I understood as sly mockery was merely childish avoidance of 'dirt', his broad statements of slightly ironic entitlement merely the right-wing mumblings of the misinformed. Perhaps what I was being given were indicators of another type, one which - with my different set of references - I did not recognise.

It is possible, after all, that it was not merely the punning title that was twisted out of shape on that Atlantic crossing.

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