Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ideal Worlds (Tigerman)

Remember when I used to put up book reviews on a regular basis? Good times, good times. Worth getting back into, I reckon, starting with a novel I recently finished reading: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

(CHECKING MY PRIVILEGE: This is the first book I've finished since resolving to keep an eye on the diversity of my personal reading list. Inauspiciously, Mr. Harkaway represents a direct continuation of the straight white male same-old-same-old. But fear not, based on the next book I started reading, I'll be able to report on getting somewhat outside the comfort zone soon enough. But more on that later.)

One of the surefire ways to get me on a story's side, to grab my attention and lock in my sympathies for the author, at the very least, before even attempting to get me invested in the characters, is to dive right into the pop culture references, particularly those from deep within my wheelhouse. Tigerman is a good case in point. From the outset, it presents itself as very much a piece of modern literary fiction, concerned with such themes as the ultimate unknowability of other people's inner selves, and the vast hardships and meager rewards of even attempting to forge meaningful human connections in order to construct something like a stable family out of the chaos of a fallen world. Not exactly the stuff of pure escapism. But soon enough come the Green Lantern references, and the Star Wars references, and at that point I am fully onboard for wherever the tale is going to go afterwards.

It's ironic (and not lost on me) that these shibboleths invoking imaginary power rings and fictional planets far, far away are the very thing that makes Tigerman feel grounded, like a story that takes place in the world I live in, where comics and movies matter to people. Also ironically, these geeky touchstones serve within the narrative not as obscure esoterica that mark the child who speaks of them as strange, but the common ground that an adult British army officer and a young third world street urchin can meet upon in order to understand one another.

Tigerman takes place almost exclusively in a fictional island nation called Mancreu, in a fictional near-future. An industrial accident has created an underground stew of chemicals and microbes which occasionally vents gas clouds that create strange and unnatural effects, and the international community grapples with grave concerns that at some point the entire cauldron will vent at once, creating a global disaster. The consensus is that Mancreu needs to be wiped off the map in some kind of concerted tactical strike, but opinions differ as the exact timing and other details. A few warships gather in the island's main harbor, along with a few other ships trafficking in extralegal activities, since the imminent demise of the island means that no authority has a vested interest in fighting crimes taking place just off the coast. All of which sets the stage for Lester Ferris, the official representative of Her Majesty in Mancreu, to take matters of justice in his own hands, urged into action by the young comic book fan he befriends, a boy who never talks about his home life and only gives his name as Robin (as in "Batman and"). And Lester, somewhat inadvertently, becomes Tigerman, more to win the admiration and possibly love of a boy he thinks of like a son, having never started a traditional family of his own.

It's a great premise for a story, particularly at this moment in history, with superhero stories ascendant in both popular and critical acclaim (to varying degrees). It imagines the ways in which a man with the proper motivation and no small amount of surplus military ordnance might realistically conduct a campaign against drug dealers and terrorists and status quo enforcing world powers indifferent to the suffering of the have-nots. Which is to say, realistically such a campaign would be doomed to failure, so the story is ultimately a tragedy of unintended consequences, although as I said above, the novel makes it clear from the first word that it is not a piece of fanciful happy-ending fluff. It takes the emotional depth of the characters as seriously as it takes the elaborate sci-fi-inflected worldbuilding. It takes the ideas, and the ideals, of superheroes very seriously, and digs deeply into what they mean, even if their inherent implausibility is a foregone conclusion. It's not a deconstruction of the tropes of comic books (thankfully; we already have plenty of those) but a meditation on what comics and real life might already have in common, and what they've always had in common.

I don't think I've ever read a book quite like Tigerman, certainly not recently, one which has breathless action scenes and dizzying plot twists and turns, and also very poetic language in service of painting the mindset of a character, and also science fiction that borders on magical realism, and also a philosophical center that still has me thinking over the implications a week later. I'll let that stand as my recommendation for it in all its pop-cult riffing, zeitgeist-seizing glory.

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