It was a sultry summer day in 1981, and the 3 billion or so inhabitants of the world went about their daily routine unaware that, possibly, the fate of the human race lay in the shaking hands of one George Mercer, an insignificant and slightly neurotic employee of the New York City Department of Welfare.
For George had been informed, by an accredited emissary of the Galactic Overlords, that he had 12 hours in which to prove the people of Earth worthy of admission into the Galactic Federation. George, and George alone, would represent all of mankind. If he failed the entire planet would be destroyed.
Was all this a nightmare of delusion dredged up by his tortured subconscious? Or a very real nightmare that would end in the Day of the Burning….
Guys, I just…I don’t even know where to start.
This book was like something I would have had to read in a college English class, probably some kind of Postmodern Lit course.
And all the other pretentious English majors would have been all “Oh I love the stream of conscious narration and the unreliable narrator and the shades of Nabokov and Kafka.”
And I would have been the kind of pretentious English major that would have been all “Shut up.”
(Incidental English major observation: What’s the deal with jacket copy using ellipses with four dots? I was always taught that it’s three or none. According to Wikipedia, The Chicago Manual of Style states that you should use an ellipsis followed by a period [thus making four dots] if it ends a sentence that is followed by another sentence, but that’s not what I see on this book cover.)
It is worth mentioning, however, just how much I LOOOOVE the cover art. Those blue guys do not look happy. If I had to guess, I’d say they were unhappy due to having itchy, burning eyes. I’ve woken up plenty of late spring mornings to find myself feeling a lot like these guys look, so my sympathies are with them.
My sympathies are not with the main character of this novel. That’s okay. It’s made clear from about page one that George Mercer isn’t going to be a character the reader is supposed to love or even like. On the other hand, he’s pretty easy to identify with on some rather basic levels.
George has got problems. His sex life is in ruins, his job is just awful, his coworkers are dumb, and he’s being followed around by a tiny alien named Lucas.
We first meet George (and Lucas) in flagrante delicto with a woman named Dolores. We learn a lot about George with this opening. Lucas isn’t participating, he’s just observing and invisible to Dolores. George, on the other hand, is participating with all his might and generally failing to perform. We get a lot of detail about George’s efforts, a lot of gross detail. Dolores doesn’t like being fondled there or there, for example. I’m toning down a lot of the explicitness but I just want you to know it was there.
George isn’t narrating the book for our benefit, but rather it’s set up as a report or a transmission to the Galactic Overlords. We don’t learn what’s going on with that until about a quarter into the book when Lucas finally tells George and us what the deal is. We learn that Lucas has been following George around for a while but George doesn’t really know why. So one day at work Lucas makes George go into the bathroom and we get to learn what’s going on.
Lucas is a representative of the Galactic Federation and his job is to observe and report back so that the Overlords can determine whether the Earth deserves to be admitted into said Federation or if the planet needs to be destroyed. It turns out that, as of today, the entire decision now rests on their evaluation of George. He has a task to complete, and if he fails the Earth will be destroyed in twelve hours.
George works for the Department of Welfare. In his rambling it’s hard to determine whether he likes his job but he paints a picture of it that isn’t pretty. His coworkers are hostile to him, calling him insane and so forth, which makes a lot of sense because there’s nothing so far that indicates that George is not insane.
There is, in fact, nothing anywhere that tells us whether any of this is actually happening. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of story. Phil Dick pulls it off on more than one occasion. That’s kind of the problem. I felt at times like I was reading a second-rate Philip K. Dick novel.
To be fair, Malzberg seems to have (according to my reading of his Wikipedia page) a number of books with plots that would interest me a lot more than this one. I say this partly because it’s true, but also because Barry Malzberg is still alive and I don’t want him to yell at me if he finds this review.
So we have this guy and his invisible friend. This guy has some kind of obsession with sex and possibly with religion and he’s going to do the great task that saves the world. What is this mighty task?
Well, it turns out that there’s a family that’s on welfare but they need to stay on welfare or something but there’s this bureaucratic situation that needs resolved and has remained unresolved for a great many years so it’s George’s job to revolve it.
Not just to do his job, but to save the world.
Malzberg pulls off a good stream-0f-consciousness narration for this book, but I’m going to be the one to finally say it: SoC narration is dumb and stupid and terrible. I know it’s been used with great success, but I’m going to come right out and tell the world that I think any good book with a stream-of-consciousness narrative structure would have been better WITHOUT IT.
Maybe I’m a Philistine.
I mean, I get what the idea is. I understand that it offers up a sense of immediacy, a connection with the narrator/character that makes it easier to share his or her headspace and therefore ride along with the story, so to speak.
But it’s also ANNOYING TO READ.
One thing I did like, though, is that George occasionally interjects little comments about the stylistic choices he’s making in the narrative as he’s going about it. He’ll say “I’m switching to past tense here because things aren’t as dire and I don’t need to ramp up the tension.” Things like that. I’m not sure why I liked it, it just amused me on some level. Like Malzberg was opening up the curtain just a tiny bit and showing people how to do the kind of thing he’s doing right then. I may not like what he was doing at that time, but that’s the breaks.
So the welfare case that George needs to solve and save the world deals with a family named the Dawsons. George has been working on their case for a while and there’s one problem that might end up getting them kicked off of welfare. There’s a period of some months that are unaccounted for in their case history. The file doesn’t say anything about how the family survived for some months between the husband, Lupe, losing his job and their eventual application for welfare.
Apparently Malzberg used to work in a welfare office so I get the idea that a lot of this book came from real life in some way or another.
Most of the dialog in this book seems to be the same thing said back and forth over the course of several pages. I get that this is probably intentional and some kind of commentary on real life. Again, it’s annoying to read.
A significant section of the book deals with George talking to Lupe and Phyllis and trying to get them to resolve this issue. How did they survive for those months? Is there any documentation? Can we talk to someone about it? Will anyone vouch for you?
The issue at hand is called “past maintenance.” George will bring up that term to them, say that he’s talking to them because of it. They will say they don’t know what that means. He doesn’t explain it to them. Repeat this, over and over again, until the section ends.
Sometimes he does break out of the formula and explains what he’s trying to get. At that point Lupe just goes “This guy is crazy! I told you he was crazy!”
And it’s all nonsensical.
This whole exchange seriously happens about three times in the book.
In between that, we get George dealing with Dolores (she reviles him now) and also at some point Lucas just goes away. George also talks to his boss. They don’t like each other.
This book really should have been a short story.
We also get the occasional glimpse at a space mission to Venus. We’ll get a page or two describing it, usually from news George hears on the radio. At first everything seems nice and jolly, but then it turns out that something is going wrong. Possibly? The astronauts’ communications cut out for a while, even though information about the ship and their crew’s vital signs appear normal. Then they claim that communications are back but what comes out is all garbled. Then when the ship comes in for a landing on Venus, it just rises back up and flies back to Earth.
I felt like all this was supposed to be significant somehow but I couldn’t figure out why other than the general tone throughout the book of AIN’T LIFE CRAZY.
I’m not a fan of things whose entire theme is AIN’T LIFE CRAZY.
I know that life is crazy.
I look at it every day.
Maybe I’m not the target audience for that kind of book.
Anyway, George has a long conversation with Lupe and Phyllis where nothing gets resolved, so he leaves and goes back to his apartment and then the world ends.
I mean, it’s still never made clear whether George is hallucinating or dreaming or what, but yeah, the whole world catches on fire at the end of the book. Or so we’re told.
There’s not a lot I can actually say about this book beyond the fact that it was difficult to follow and hinged around a lot of people I didn’t like.
I don’t read books to get a glimpse into the world I already see around me. What’s the point? I can already see how cold and harsh and confusing the world is. I don’t need a book to add to that.
When I read I either want to escape from the world for a while, or I want somebody to show me something about the world that I didn’t already know. Or maybe I did know it all along and I just never thought about it that way.
I don’t want a blunt sad existential tale. I want something to be pretty.
I’m not saying that my way is the only way, and I bet there are a lot of people who would get a big kick out of this book. I’m not one of them.