Two Views: Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery
Reviewed by Martin Lewis and Rose Fox
15 October 2007
As always, you can judge a book by its cover. The back of the pretty little proof copy of Spaceman Blues carries a selection of helpful information for your faithful reviewer. This includes the fact that Spaceman Blues will have "national print advertising in The New Yorker." Not your average Tor novel then. More than the modern design and literary positioning, though, the novel's subtitle gives the game away: this is a love song.
Wendell Apogee loves Manuel Rodrigo de Guzman Gonzalez. Then one day Manuel's apartment explodes and he disappears. Four giant purple aliens are the chief suspects. Wendell is left a "widow" once Manuel is gone and searches desperately to find him. After the obligatory trip to the underworld Wendell reinvents himself as Captain Spaceman for a showdown against the aliens. It is a plot that in synopsis sounds primary-coloured and childish. On the page it is less absurdly comic-book, but not much so.
If it's a love song, it's not the sort of one we traditionally associate with that term. Although it has the duration and immediacy of a punk or pop song, Spaceman Blues is a sprawling mix of influences—not unlike Pan-Galactic Groove Squad, the band that features prominently in the novel. In his rapturous review, Matthew Cheney rather obviously compares the novel to the blues (more on that later), but perhaps jazz fusion would be more apposite. This also brings out the sense in which not only are different genres in competition but so too are the individual strands of the story. The components of Spaceman Blues are like independent performers: sometimes parts soar together, sometimes they talk over each other; there is harmony and discord that is sometimes intentional and sometimes not. But before I get entirely lost in this metaphor, let's return to looking at the novel as literature.
People like to claim science fiction is about the present rather than the future. This is because it sounds good and flatters the genre. In fact, a vast amount of SF is set in a magical never-never-land of cool stuff and has zero engagement with the real world. Spaceman Blues actually is about the present, and specifically about what it is like to live in a modern Western metropolis, but it is not really SF. J. G. Ballard famously remarked that, "Earth is the only alien planet." It is easy to see where he was coming from and you would be hard pressed to say that Trantor, for example, is more alien than New York. Slattery's New York is problematic, though. Well, not so much problematic as—dare I say it—interstitial.
At this point it is probably worth saying up front that I've never been to New York. I have, however, spent a large amount of my life in London, its long term rival to the spurious title of World's Greatest City. Obviously they are different cities, but at the same time they are the same city. Each has its own taste and texture, but they are essentially made from the same ingredients.
Wendell sits in the centre of a circle of friends who are all perhaps a bit too smugly satisfied with their boho existence. There is a vague self-congratulatory air to Slattery's city and his characters, the sort of thing which gives places like Williamsburg and Shoreditch a bad name. Of course, Wendell isn't the only character who is in love:
"Diane loves all five of them the same, yes, her heart is big enough for that, but she loves Lucas the most and it is taking apart her internal organs; twice she has been hospitalised, near to death." (p. 22)
This sort of metaphor as literal truth, as it is in Spaceman Blues, is a hallmark of fabulism and it is a tricky style to pull off. Jonathan Lethem recently undertook an interesting and rather baffling project: to write a magical realist autobiography. That novel, 2003's Fortress of Solitude, was another fable about New York and had similar problems to Spaceman Blues. In part Lethem failed because the magical elements were so frail compared to the vividity of real life. What was praiseworthy in Fortress Of Solitude was a wealth of acute, minute detail, something pretty much absent from Slattery's novel. In their own way both novels mythologise New York but whereas Lethem has a complex, almost fetishistic relationship with the city, Slattery is more straight forwardly admiring and nostalgic. He never seems to fully plunge his hands into the dirt and grit of the city.
Nor does he fully embrace the opposite direction, epitomised by Steve Aylett's distillation of the imprints of a thousand New York cops and robbers into the gonzo city of Beerlight in his series of novels starting with Atom (2000). Beerlight is exactly the sort of place where a guy called Wendell Apogee would feel at home, likewise detective duo Salmon and Trout. In Slattery's New York, though, such names just jar. These are symptoms of a wider problem, which is that Slattery's prose switches between the concrete and the abstract—the constant threat of fabulation—and too often what we are left with falls between the cracks: a ghost city which is neither as rich or as strange as reality.
Nevertheless, there are some good observations in the book:
"Diane believes the work tells a vague truth about cellphones, how people who use them are like the living dead, victims of possession, or schizophrenics, walking down the street oblivious, staring at nothing, mumbling or shouting into their own hands." (p. 60)
The fact that the two quotes I've used are both from Diane is no accident. She is a minor character, but at least she is a character. The others are often ciphers. Manuel is both a perfect black marketeer and a perfect blackbody. He is a void in the novel; he is not illuminated, he sucks light. Wendell is defined only by his lack, which is a bit of a problem for a love song.
Another heartsick minor character mourns absent love:
"It is not only umbrellas that remind him of her: car alarms, black suede shows, the taste of cinnamon, and white pigeons also summon her." (p. 190)
Perhaps this is the litmus test for the novel. If you emphathise with this you will probably find the novel moving and compelling. If, on the other hand, this strikes you as whimsy that doesn't really get at the violent nature of love you probably won't. In his review, Cheney remarked that, "the blues turns sadness into beauty." Well, sometimes. Sometimes it is just about fighting and fucking and feeling sorry for yourself. The beauty of the blues comes from its ability to pierce the heart, from the artist's ability to make you ache like they ache. It's a pure, masochistic beauty that Spaceman Blues never attains.
Reviewer's note: This review contains significant spoilers.
Much as wild animals are best appreciated in their natural habitat, Slattery's version of New York and its inhabitants is at its best when encountered on the 1 train heading south from the Bronx, while it's still aboveground and rocketing past rag-curtained tenement windows and the occasional marble edifice left over from Inwood's glory days as a suburb for the wealthy Dutch, or on a Brooklyn rooftop in a bent-backed lawn chair your roommate found on the street, with the blazing sun slowly descending behind the shimmering Manhattan skyline and the back of your mind occupied by thoughts of what to wear to tonight's illegal warehouse party. A park bench might be an acceptable venue, but only if the park is small and a bit run down and your bicycle is chained to the fence and you have the world's best chocolate egg cream in a dripping paper cup that you hold carefully to one side as you turn the pages. If you think wistfully of the days when Times Square was actually dangerous, or you've walked across the East River more times on more bridges than you can count, or you learned Spanish or Mandarin or Russian so you could talk with your neighbors in your six-storey walkup where the front door doesn't lock and nobody cares, you will read the first page and think, ah, home. If your concept of New York comes from Friends or Sex in the City, it might make the most sense to think of this book as being set in a completely different place that just happens to have the same name.
Slattery's prose is extraordinary. It's rare to encounter a book so chock-full of head-hopping, jumbled antecedents, and tense changes that nonetheless displays complete mastery of language:
The smoke smells of apples and warmth, it drifts into [Wendell], loosens his legs, his shoulders, and he and Daoud talk of neighborhood politics, how the Greeks are ceding land to the Arabs, how the Central Americans are making things interesting, fleeing wars and governments full of thieves, coming here to open restaurants and sell real estate. The neighborhood gets better all the time, Daoud says. It is evolution. There is talk of Daoud's family, of his upbringing in Egypt, the sun-blasted shores of the wide Nile and the moneychangers in Cairo. Sometimes they say nothing; they just sit there smiling and smoking and eating vegetables. Within two months, when he is huddled under a blanket in three inches of water, peering up through the bright grate of a rain gutter at the fury in the street above, the sparks from the great fires fluttering down through the dark air, scaring away the vermin, he will think back on this afternoon, the last quiet hours he had. He will want to travel back in time to tell himself to savor it, the taste of the food and tobacco in the hot shade, the sound of Daoud's jovial voice over the gritty, bouncy ragtime he is fond of; he will want to tell himself to draw it in and keep it, cup it in his shivering hands, curl around it, and allow it to bring him sleep, in the forty-five minutes between the flames and the sudden flight. (pp. 58–9)
At the heart of Slattery's New York is Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González, smuggler and seducer extraordinaire. Everyone knows him; every character is introduced by a brief flashback to a brief but meaningful encounter with Manuel. Wendell Apogee, his lover of many years, knows full well that Manuel dallies elsewhere, and doesn't so much allow it as acquiesce. When he finds that the legendary feud between Manuel and his fellow smuggler Arturo "El Flaco" Domínguez began when Manuel ran off with El Flaco's wife, Lavinia, Wendell exhibits neither surprise nor sorrow, though that may be because he is more focused on a far more important question: where has Manuel gone? He has vanished, and even in the city where everyone knows him, no one seems to know where he is. Many think him dead—not least because his apartment exploded the day after he disappeared—but Wendell, driven by equal parts aching love and fury at being left behind, refuses to believe it and undertakes a determined quest to find Manuel and bring him home.
Quests are quests, and on that front there is little to distinguish Wendell's from any other. He talks to people, though they all tell him that if he doesn't know, no one does. He travels to strange places, the strangest being the unfortunately named Darktown, a city of caverns and lakes that has been slowly hollowed out below the streets of New York. As Wendell explores Darktown Market, the parallels to London Below in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere are unfortunately easy to draw, and here is where the quest begins to feel a little stale. Even Wendell's transformation into the hilariously cartoonish Captain Spaceman (after the obligatory scene where a few months of martial arts and weaponry training are enough to turn him from an average guy into a fighting machine) carries a whiff of desperation—not just Wendell's, but also Slattery's. He knows that there is no happy ending in store for the estranged lovers, and perhaps that makes it hard for him to write convincingly of Wendell's continued optimism. Manuel, you see, has run off with Lavinia in an alien spaceship, and is never coming back.
Slattery takes pains to set this up as a plausible denouement. When four robed figures on what appear to be aerial skateboards begin blowing up members of the Church of Panic, who back up their the-day-is-at-hand beliefs with data from NASA, it's not hard to guess that flying saucers will make an appearance. As Captain Spaceman, Wendell takes on the Four Horsemen and finds them to be entirely unhuman. The mechanics of Manuel's disappearance are unsurprising. What makes it all fall apart is Wendell's faith in Manuel's fickle brand of fidelity, and everyone else's insistence that he loved Wendell best and told him everything. Perhaps because we see the story through Wendell's eyes, these are the believable things, and as he learns many secrets that Manuel kept from him, we share his denial, his insistence that Manuel would never truly leave him.
At the end, more aliens arrive and prepare to annihilate New York. Their motives are never made entirely clear, but Lucas Henderson, one of the few surviving members of the Church of Panic and a close friend of Wendell's, declares that the destruction will be horrible and complete. Why, after painting such lushly vivid pictures of an extraordinary place, after taking such pains to give depth to even the characters who get only a moment of screen time, does Slattery call down thunderbolts from the deus ex machina? In the depths of personal despair, finally accepting that Manuel is gone, Wendell pulls himself together to join the Darktown militia and fight the invaders. Is there supposed to be a moral lesson there? Is the pending doom a strange parallel to 9/11, where New Yorkers get to see disaster coming and make the conscious choice to either abandon their city or show their love for it by dying in its immolated streets, where we need feel no moral qualms about fighting back because the bad guys are inhuman and all-powerful? It's all entirely unclear and profoundly unsatisfying, like watching a toddler build a beautiful tower of blocks and then kick it all to pieces.
Somewhere in the first twenty pages of the book, I found myself in tears. Slattery describes the New York I live in with tremendous love (and, believe it or not, only the slightest exaggeration). I have walked those streets in Washington Heights and Astoria and Red Hook, watched street parties take over entire neighborhoods, danced to enormous pickup bands that don't seem to ever stop playing, joined the children running through the water pouring from open fire hydrants on the hottest days of summer. My neighbors have names like Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González. I will probably read those first twenty pages again and again: to myself in far-away places when I feel homesick, to friends just moved to New York who don't quite know what they're in for.
The rest, I can do without. (The $21.95 cover price thus makes for about a dollar a worthwhile page. Talk about New York prices!) Perhaps because the city of Spaceman Blues is so gloriously familiar, I resent Slattery's treatment of it all the more. Like Wendell, if I'm going to suffer the loss of something I love so deeply, I want there to be some meaning to it, not the shocked missed-step experience of someone I've never met swooping in and taking it away for no discernable reason. I have real life for that. I find it entirely unnecessary in fiction.