Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Drain, a review.


The first thing I thought when I started reading Davis Schneiderman’s experimental sci-fi novel Drain was that it was one of the most original things I’ve read in quite a while.  The second thought I had was gee, I wonder if I should send his editor at Northwestern University Press some flowers and a get-well soon card in hopes for a speedy recovery from the stroke that this manuscript must have given her.  This absolute beast of a novel has been the center of my reading list and consciousness for long enough now that I’m thrilled to finally be able to sit down at the end of it and write down a few thoughts about it.

Just as quick background, Drain is the story of what happens when Lake Michigan suddenly dries up.  Three groups vie for influence and control in the sudden vast space that is created and dubbed the Wildland-Urban Interface: The Quadrilateral Corporation, a slick group of semi-soulless, high-tech, Stepford Wives-types who take the names of past US Presidents and plan to remake the lake bed into a sort of hellish hybrid of gated Florida condominiums and Henry Ford communities.  The Blackout Angels, a group of psychonaut revolutionary-outlaws who seek to undermine order wherever it may be found, and who have the power to possess the bodies of others but at the book’s outset cannot control and don’t really very well understand this power.  And finally the Worm-worshipping Maneuverian Cultists, who at the time of the book’s narration are little more than a viciously trodden-upon piece of scenery or background, whose spiritual leader Fulcrum Maneuvers is long dead and whose Lake-drinking World Worm, Umma-Segnus has never returned to validate their existence.

The story follows several characters and their comings and goings through the eyes of the two main POV characters: Washington Jefferson Lincoln Qui of the Quadrilateral Corporation and his Blackout Angels counterpart Dial-Up Networking as they struggle often on opposite sides of an ill-defined conflict with each other.  On Washington Jefferson Lincoln Qui’s side (if there are such a thing as sides, which is also unclear and fluid throughout much of the book) is Bush-Bush Bush, his Quadrilateral-assigned sidekick, Woodrow Wilson Panaflex, an investor who speaks in air quotes and comes along to keep an eye on things, and Dr. Zebediah Dooger, the current head of Quadrilateral.  Dial-Up Networking begins the story with a posse of droog-like hooligans named None, Nothing, and Number and eventually teams up with Neutron Janey a flashy young woman whose past is later revealed in one of the book’s several plot twists.  As the book progresses we learn bits and pieces of the story, including some of its background with the occasional thrilling revelation that makes two dozen unclear plot points suddenly click into place at once.  Only toward the end do we get a clearer picture of the followers of Fulcrum Maneuvers; who they were, what they believed and why.  As the book hurtles (or sometimes slouches wounded and bleeding) toward a conclusion, we try to piece together what exactly happened to Lake Michigan, if the World Worm and the recurring motifs of the three islands actually exist, and what it all (or at least some of it) means.

Though many things happen to the main characters of the book that advance the present storyline, it’s safe to say that much of the book’s body is concerned with fleshing out and giving slowly-meted detail to this central conceit.  In the final chapters the lines between characters and times and places blur considerably and Schneiderman ramps up the metafictional elements to give us a finale that somehow manages to straddle nearly the entire convoluted plotline despite large chunks of the book being cryptic to the point of near-unintelligibility.  Drain revels maniacally in metaphor like a ten-week old kitten with a hay-bale of catnip and it’s full of colorful characters that leap like Bob Dylan song lyrics off of the page (try saying Doctor Zebediah Dooger to yourself ten times; okay, now try to stop saying it).  The degree to which it is a visual and experiential rather than a literal book cannot be overstated.  In fact, only a small portion of it has really anything at all to do with the main plot or storyline, and the remaining three quarters or so is expression, digression, or misdirection in approximately equal measure.  The tangents veer off uncontrollably at first, overwhelm you with their density, and then only later begin to coalesce into something that resembles even the most tenuously reliable narration.  The result is a book that feels absolutely enormous in scope, and is just what the doctor ordered to relieve us of the commonness of much formulaic, genre post-apocalyptic fiction.  If there are tropes or clich├ęs here to be found, they are hidden deeply beneath the page and conjured more by the limits of our capacity to imagine a so-appointed story without them.

Here’s the thing, though:  Drain is not precisely an unreadable book, but it’s possibly the closest thing to unreadable I’ve ever successfully read.  This is not a criticism.  I’m admittedly not much of a poetry reader, and suspect if I were I might have found the book a bit more accessible.  That said, it’s important to note that I am a writer and editor and I am in the habit of spending large amounts of time reading material that I would not necessarily seek out for enjoyment.  I kept returning to the thought over and over again as I read it that as an editor I would have no idea where to even start with this.  It is metalinguistic metafiction at its most brutally indulgent.  I say it with love, but I do not exaggerate when I say it took every ounce of resolve I could muster to make it to the end of this book.  To be clear, though, this is because Drain is possibly one of the most legitimately challenging texts I’ve ever read.  It spit in the face of my understanding of structure, particularly with regards to science fiction, and it tested the outermost threshold of my normally-desensitized literary palate.  It challenged my willingness to focus on a deluge of images so vast and meandering that it started to overload my senses and dull my ability to discern plot from subplot, image point from image counterpoint.  Coming from someone who has conditioned himself to burn efficiently through his reading list and can typically finish a thousand-page epic sci-fi novel in two or three days, it took me nearly two straight months to finish the 250 page Drain.

It is an absolutely assailing text that way, mercilessly exhausting to the very final page, and in view of the obvious quality of its construction I can only conclude that this was as equally meticulous and planned.  I got the sense after two hundred pages that the manuscript was carefully calculated slyly to be easy to put down.  It screamed seductively at me to just turn back, and abandon hope all ye who enter here.  And this was a relentless and pervasive sensation, as if Schneiderman knew that I was still hanging in there, still waiting for moments of revelation, for it all to suddenly start making sense, and he wanted to play out that game to the bitter end with this book; as self-aware a book as ever there was, and one unafraid to playfully trample the fourth wall and screw with the reader directly.  There are moments of thrilling coherence from time to time, but in the end the greatest reward of Drain is simply to survive it.

I found Drain a beautifully-conceived, highly-intelligent, and wildly experimental book in the very best sense of each of those adjectives.  I cannot recommend this book to everyone due to its sheer maddening, deliberate impenetrability, but it is flat-out brilliant in places and profoundly original.  If you decide, however, to try to tackle it and you stumble back later with swollen eyes and a perpetual headache that Advil won’t touch, babbling names like ‘Signor Clickermink Lispsmut’, you can't say I didn't warn you.