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June 2001
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Elizabeth Hand

by Terry Bisson
Tor Books, 240 pp, $22.95

By Jonathan Carroll
Tor Books, 302 pp, $23.95

Pop Goes Tomorrow

Time was, not so long ago, when a dystopic Future was a scarily enticing precinct, to be entered warily and carefully armed, or at least fashionably-dressed: think of the methamphetamine dreamscapes of writers like William Gibson, Samuel R. Delany, Geoff Ryman, Philip K. Dick, Jonathan Lethem, Angela Carter, M. John Harrison.

These days, however, Tomorrowland is just as often designed for merely satirical effect. Near-future novels like Melvin Burkiet's tragicomic horrorshow Signs and Wonders, Bruce Sterling's Zeitgeist, or Jack Womack's Let's Put the Future Behind Us take the tropes and misanthropes of contemporary culture and play them mostly for laughs - nervous laughter, in the case of Burkiet's black novel, more complacent sniggers of recognition in Sterling's. Part of this is due to the fact that in pop culture the future has been colonized - suburbanized, really - just as effectively as the present, and with as deleterious a fallout on niche cultures, endangered species, and The Natural Phenomena Formerly Known As Wilderness. The complex (and, to use a bad word these days, literary) process of worldbuilding, with its laboriously constructed strata of detail - anthropological, sociological, technological and architectural - has been replaced by an iconographic shorthand. In mainstream fiction, the recitation of brand names and URLs supplants the rigors of characterization and style. Even in science fiction, original eidolons of Eden and anti-Eden - Utopia, Bellona, cyberspace, Nerewhon, Arrakis, Viriconia, Mars - have too often been replaced by readymade, immediately recognizable symbols of the same, McEvil Empires (see how easy it is to fall into this trap?) like Disneyland and Las Vegas and McDonald's and Microsoft.

It's hard not to play these for laughs, though the symbols do lend themselves to chills: John Wayne Gacey Stephen King's Pennyfarthing Ronald McDonald. The nightmarish Disneyland finale of Burkiet's Signs and Wonders manages to escape the pitfalls of satire. So does the the extended pop culture auto-de-fé of Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve, a book I thought a great deal about while reading Terry Bisson's new novel, The Pickup Artist. As protagonists, both books have innocent young men journeying west from New York into an increasingly entropic American landscape. Both revel, and often wallow, in the physical detritus of American consumerism. Both showcase characters drawn from the Major Arcana of Twentieth Century American icons - Elvis and the Colonel, Greta Garbo and Charles Manson, Bill Gates and Hank Williams. Both, coincidentally or not, feature the husk of an ancient, self-defining Movie Star in a central role - Carter's Tristesse, Bisson's Damaris.

But Carter had the advantage of publishing The Passion of New Eve in 1977, when the notion of a country corrosively irradiated by its own popular culture may not have been fresh, but it had yet to become the family-ready fare of iMac commercials. Bisson has a longer, older row of pop corn to reduce to ashes, and he does a pretty thorough job of doing so.

The adventures of Hank Shapiro, the naive federal employee who narrates The Pickup Artist, begin in Staten Island and end in Las Vegas. Again, it's probably not Bisson's fault that one can predict his novel's trajectory from these bare facts, but here the unraveling of plot is less crucial to the pleasures of a story than its bleakly comic gloss. Shapiro is a pickup artist, a low-level employee of the Bureau of Arts and Entertainment whose job it is to go door to door, like a census worker, and collect illegal cultural artifacts. It seems that our present glut of information and junk is nothing: a few years from now, the vast weight of centuries of Art, and especially the vast weight of Twentieth Century Art (or crap, whatever you want to call it) threatens to crush both the world's storage capacity and the creative fervor of living artists. Loosely-allied groups of terrorists known as Alexandrians ("for the fire, not the library") bomb museums; innocent lives are shed.

And so the BAE was established to purge the world of excess art. (Hey, not a bad idea!you think, recalling that Jeff Koons polychrome sculpture of Michael Jackson.) The cutoff birthdates are the mid-19th century for visual artists and 1899 for writers, musicians, songwriters. Each month the BAE randomly selects 1200 individuals whose works are to be relegated to that Great Dumpster in the Sky. All digital references to an artist are deleted, and any physical works - books, videos, vinyl, sculptures, paintings - are collected by pickup artists like Shapiro and subsequently destroyed.

Shapiro is a nice guy who does his job competently and with sympathy for those he visits, collecting their old Grishams and Harrison Ford videos. He's in Deletion, not Enforcement; he doesn't report forgotten copies of Bonnie and Clyde, and he's generous in doling out bonuses for old paperbacks. But he's a straight arrow, which makes him particularly vulnerable to seduction when it finally comes, in the guise of a vinyl recording of Hank Williams. Shapiro's fall from grace starts when he doesn't turn the record in to the authorities, but before he has a chance to purchase a bootleg record player, the album is snatched, and the chase begins.

The Hank Williams album is a Maguffin in the purest sense, and the motley characters in The Pickup Artist move swiftly in its pursuit. Shapiro is joined by his dying dog, Homer; Henrietta, a librarian who's used drugs to keep from giving birth to the child she's been pregnant with for nearly a decade; the corpse of a clone named Indian Bob, "one of seventy-seven Robert Lightfoots . . . cloned in an attempt to preserve the full-blooded Native American population." Indian Bob and his kin all run smalltime casinos and cheesy trading posts; they were part of a lost archaic New Jersey community, until the Ethnicity Act provided them with a historian and an archaeologist.

The Indian Bobs are just one strand in a complex braid of running jokes that spirals through The Pickup Artist like a demented strand of DNA. There's the history of the Alexandrian movement itself, told in alternating chapters, as well as descriptions of horrifically hilarious new drugs. (My favorite of these was Dig: people ingest it and proceed to dig manicallythrough the immense trash middens where all the refuse and treasures of Bisson's future world lie hidden.)

As they travel west, Shapiro's weird little family grows - Henry gives birth to a homunculus who speaks in monosyllables, notably the word "Yup," and the tiny electronic bug set in pursuit of Shapiro falls in love with him. They finally reach Las Vegas, the closest this deracinated world gets to an Emerald City, where an enigmatic tycoon named Mr. Bill stands in for the Wizard, and the wizened movie star Damaris stands guard over another corpse. By story's end there are more corpses, more fires; but before the glowing dust has a chance to settle Shapiro and his little band are poised to continue West once more. It's a tribute to Bisson's power as a novelist that his grotesque creations are ultimately endearing as well as clever. Would I follow them on to California? Yup.

*     *     *

The Wooden Sea is another novel seamed with pop culture, though Jonathan Carroll's take on our world is at once more nostalgic and more hopeful. His hero, Frannie McCabe, is also a public servant - a small town cop, the police chief of Crane's View, the fictional Westchester County village he terrorized as a teenager. Frannie - who first appeared in Carroll's 1998 Kissing the Beehive - has grown up to be a good guy, middle-aged and happily married. He's a sucker for lost souls - a three-legged stray dog, the town idiot - the kind of cop who happily still exists, maybe even in Westchester.

Like all good guys, he's headed for a fall. It comes when the three-legged dog, Old Vertue, dies on him and Frannie dutifully hauls the body off to bury it himself in the woods. Old Vertue stays dead, but he won't stay buried: he shows up again in the trunk of Frannie's car. From this inexplicable event, The Wooden Sea cascades into a shimmering, often brilliant shower of strange and beautiful set pieces. Frannie's self-destructive teenage self appears, and not only moves in with Frannie but falls in love with his stepdaughter. A high school honors student dies of a heroin overdose; when Frannie is called to the death scene, he finds that her notebook is filled with eerie drawings that presage the bizarre events in his own life. Aliens appear, whose interest in Frannie is benign but not necessarily in his best interest. In an effort to aid them, he ends up meeting not just his past selves but his future self as well, sometimes all at the same time, and his hometown of Crane's View - past, present, future - flashes by him like the images in a child's flip book.

Carroll has a remarkable ability to reproduce the clarity and lucidity of one of those dreams that make perfect sense while you are asleep, but which defy any attempt at logic once awake. His gift for the everyday is extraordinary, too, as well as his powerful evocation of complex characters grappling with issues as disparate as time travel and their own mortality. In Carroll's hands, small details of pop culture become the grace notes that define a world and that world's passing, underscoring G. K Chesterton's observation that "what is loved becomes immediately what can be lost."

A teenage girl overdoses on heroin but what flattens you are her socks with white hearts on them. A man wraps his silver car around a tree killing him and his whole family, but what makes it unforgettable is that that song you love, "Sally Go Round the Roses," is still playing on the radio in the wreck when you get to it. A blue New York Mets baseball cap spotted with blood on a living room floor, the scorched family cat in the yard of the burnt house . . . These are what you remember . . . "

The Wooden Sea is in many ways an extended litany - liturgy, almost - of what Frannie McCabe remembers. Each encounter with his adolescent and, later, even younger self, summons a Proustian recall of the world those earlier Frannies inhabited. His father, "Mr. Drip Dry, cap-toed oxford shoes from Florshein, Robert Hall suit, one whiskey before dinner and never more." The local movie theater; a vintage Briggs and Stratton lawnmower; even the menus in a diner, "turquoise with thick gold lettering . . . stuck behind each jukebox selector down the counter" - middle-aged Frannie relishes them all, with that intensity usually reserved for deathbed visions. But Frannie isn't sentimental. He remembers exactly how much of an asshole the young Frannie was, and nothing can mitigate his horror at confronting his seventy-something self in a future Vienna - "Had I changed into an old golfer? Shriveled hands, Hush Puppies, and red pants? Holy shit!"

Ultimately, the aliens and their need for Frannie's help is less involving than Frannie's own delight and regret at facing all of his selves - the good, the bad, the just plain crummy. There are a few serious omissions to Carroll's litany of Westchester's past pleasures - Zagnuts but not Clark Bars? Claude Kirschner but not Sandy Becker? Not to mention that many of the once-small towns between Dobbs Ferry and Goldens Bridge have been destroyed by teardowns and the construction of the ubiquitous McMansions. A middle-income guy like Frannie McCabe might not recognize the old neighborhood, let alone live in it.

The Wooden Sea ends as it began, with clods of earth being shovelled into a grave. It's melancholy, moving meditation on age, the inevitability of change, and the wisdom of acceptance in the face of death, "the most frightening word in the human vocabulary." "After a heavy rain the world is different for a while," Frannie muses at one point. After reading one of Jonathan Carroll's novels, the world is different, too.

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