Sensation by Nick Mamatas
Reviewed by Molly Tanzer
09 September 2011
As a lifelong arachnophobe, I think I can safely say from a position of some authority that those who share my deep yet irrational horror of skittering eight-legged creatures have little to fear from Nick Mamatas's third novel, Sensation, even though the novel is narrated by a hive-mind of intelligent spiders who live everywhere among us. And when I say everywhere, I mean not just in corners and under chairs, but inside mobile human bodies of "indeterminate ethnicity" which they design, spin, and then operate from within. These spiders inhabit said bodies in order to police humankind (gently, they would claim, and with our happiness always in mind) and create greater social stability. Because they care. Because they love us. Oh, and also because social apathy among humans in turn allows the spiders to better escape one of their more terrible predators, the wasp Hymenoepimescis sp.
All of the above is, of course, downright ghastly—that the person next to you on the bus or at the coffee shop could actually be a puppet-body hosting thousands of sentient spiders, ugh ugh ugh—but that’s not the reason Sensation made me squirm. While I believe there's only a slight risk of arachnophobes getting the screaming heebie-jeebies from Sensation, the novel has the potential to be an at-times uncomfortable read for any of the following persons, at least those who lack a sense of humor about themselves: hipsters, scenesters, those who believe in the power of performance poetry to effect social change, anyone who has ever smugly hit "send" on an angry-typed comment/blog entry correcting some jackass on the internet and subsequently felt like they've really "made a difference," people who recognize the phrase "Godwin's Law" without consulting Urban Dictionary, folks who've spelled America "AmeriKKKa" to make a political point, those who donate money instead of time to activist/charitable organizations, and frustrated academics. Telling of Sensation's attitude toward . . . oh, everyone, is this early description of some activists' spray paint-based attempts to foil the ambitions of a high profile real estate developer who is building a stadium and new condos in a Brooklyn neighborhood:
Police lexica of graffiti tags and gang symbols needed daily updating. What the fuck, it was being asked frequently, did I CAN HAZ NAYBURHOOD and GENTRIFICATION CAT IS GENTRIFIED mean?
And not even its author knew what to make of INVISIBLE HEGEMONIC POSTMODERN URBANIST GEOGRAPHIES, which was sprayed across the anchorage of the Williamsburg Bridge in a glow-in-the-dark color not easily identifiable. (p. 23)
It seems plausible it is this sort of pointed spoofing of the onanistic in-joke wink-nudge nature of contemporary culture—as well as those individuals who actively embrace and perpetuate it—that has so piqued some critics. This makes sense. Sensation engages at various times with what it means to be human, but it is the concept of how crucial but infinitely malleable human identity truly is that Mamatas returns to again and again. And, because Sensation is satire, Mamatas therefore pokes fun at identity quite frequently, especially those parts of ourselves we think are innate and unique, but aren't really.
I know I found some of the identity-satirizing call outs somewhat harsh, but then again, since I recognized myself so easily among the characters who populate Sensation, I probably deserve to be called out. It helps, however, that Mamatas's satire is relentlessly self-aware. His writing has the tone of an educated, insider perspective on online culture and political movements. This can make his teasing so much more difficult to deflect, but Mamatas has the talent and ability to make readers grin back at him as he sucker-punches beloved parts of their personalities. That is to say, Sensation might not be the most comfortable read, but it is a thought-provoking, intelligent satire, and a poignant commentary on apathy, self-delusion, love, grief, and how sometimes people just change sometimes, for no discernible reason, but with far-reaching consequences.
Mamatas foregrounds that notion of change in Sensation's very first chapter, where struggling City College instructor Raymond Hernandez goes to the Food Emporium and unexpectedly catches a glimpse of his ex-wife, Julia. Julia, months prior to this chance encounter, left Raymond for (what he at least considers) inexplicable reasons. Given that after their separation, Julia murders a man and subsequently goes into hiding, Raymond has good reason for being quite surprised to see her for reasons other than her choice of grocery store, though her choice of grocery store ends up being more significant than one might initially think.
Raymond is not a regular at the Food Emporium. He’s there because "he'd suddenly been caught up in the memory of the texture of Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Doughnuts. The way the chocolate coating, hard and plasticky, split on his tongue. The meat of the doughnut, thick and spongy like it was made a day old" (p. 3). Such exquisite attention to detail is characteristic of Mamatas's writing throughout Sensation, and it is his ability to capture nuance so perfectly that makes the first scene in the novel so striking—because, at first, Raymond doesn't recognize Julia for Julia. So many little things have changed about her since last they saw one another that he merely knows that he knows her, but thinks she "might be someone from high school, or maybe even the television" (p. 1).
Raymond's confusion seems a little strange, initially—sure, Julia is an unexpected presence in an unusual location (prior to their estrangement, Julia never shopped at the Food Emporium, either), and context is incredibly important to human interactions . . . but still. Regardless, if you just go along with it, it's beautiful to observe how Mamatas effectively captures the disorientation people feel when someone we should easily be able to recognize in situ is rendered a complete stranger due to setting. Raymond's disorientation goes on to make more sense, however, when it is revealed that it is not simply context which perplexes him. Mamatas shows it is both the macro and the micro which inform recognition, and, on a larger scale, human identity. Raymond's bafflement comes into sharper focus—and the mystery deepens—when it's revealed that Julia's shopping cart is full of food Raymond knows she doesn't eat, and she is writing a check to pay, which is also unusual for her. The purse in which her checkbook is contained is purple, which Raymond finds downright bizarre, knowing her taste as he does. It is only Julia's unique farewell, "yahbye," that is able to trigger his recognition, because everything else about her is so very different.
That so many small differences could render a person nearly unrecognizable is a strange thought, but not at all impossible. When, later in the novel, the spiders put someone in to the arachnid version of the Witness Protection Program, they do not require anything as major as, say, a move across the country—merely Jersey City to Brooklyn. Instead, they focus on making the person disappear via personality and preference change. They tell their subject that now they'll tune in to American Idol instead of Survivor, order a monte cristo rather than pancakes when dining out. To cultivate an interest in sports where once there was none. Develop new facial tics. It’s spooky to think such minor things could obscure identity so thoroughly, but I know I've had moments of "Is that . . . nah . . . I mean . . . nah . . . well, yeah? Maybe?" when I've spotted folks whom I recognize doing uncharacteristic things and/or in (for them) bizarre locations.
In the end, it turns out Raymond was not totally at fault for failing to recognize Julia. The person he sees is her, but is also not. Julia, before even leaving Raymond, had been stung by a Hymenoepimescis sp. wasp, the type which the aforementioned sentient Plesiometa argyra spiders are at war with, as the wasps reproduce by laying their eggs in Plesiometa argyra. In normal wasps, the larvae chemically alter the spider's behavior in order to compel it to create appropriate environments for the larvae to pupate. This mutated wasp, however, lays its eggs in a human being—Julia—and they chemically alter her behavior instead. She begins to experience strange urges, with consequences great and small, for her, and for everyone else.
Sensation doesn’t really have a main character (nor does it really have a plot—more on that in a moment), but of those who would be candidates for such a title, I found Julia's thread most compelling. Julia, post-wasp attack, is considered to be a "victim" by the spider narrators; she, however, views her transformation as liberating and empowering. In a quiet moment later in the novel, Julia quite literally can’t comprehend the person she used to be: she tells her Raymond, "I mean, I'm not even the slightest bit attracted to you. No attraction. No affection. You're not even my type, Raymond. I can remember being with you, smiling when I'd wake up and you were there next to me, but I can't feel it" (p. 117). Such conundrums are not uncommon among humans—who among us has not wondered what on earth made us feel like dating a certain ex was a good idea, or taking a certain job a sound decision?—but the notion that the changes we all go through over the course of our lives could be externally induced is sobering, and that bit of horror darkens even the most amusing moments of the novel.
Above, I remarked on Sensation's lack of plot, but that's not entirely accurate. It has a plot, but it doesn't really follow the three act structure or the Freytag triangle. Instead, characters drift in and out of each others lives, make decisions and take actions at moments other than one would expect after a steady diet of more traditionally-structured novels; crucial, mystery-solving information is revealed at downright bizarre times (like, say, within the first few chapters, instead of a "big reveal" close to the end). At one point I attempted to decide if Sensation had a climax, and my conclusion after going back and forth was a conclusive "maybe?" This is, in part, because the moments that stood out to me as important were those other than what someone who was for some reason trying to determine what were the Plot Elements of Sensation. And the novel has plenty of action, but whether it's rising or falling is debatable.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Sensation is an amazing reflection of the aimless, meandering, and sometimes random nature of modern life, and a truer depiction than many other attempts out there—which is a kick-ass achievement given that it is, at is core, about a war between anarchist wasps and hive-minded spiders. Mamatas perfectly captures how humans are, simultaneously, weird and unpredictable and easily manipulated and stubborn and terrible and wonderful. But he also succeeds in creating a believable non-human intelligence, close enough as to go unnoticed among us, but different in every important way, with long-term motivations that are occasionally admirable and nearly always creepy. That some of the people out there in the world might not be, well, people seems upsettingly plausible within the world of Sensation. That's why it works, and works beautifully. Go read it.