11:58 am Jul. 5, 2012
Even as the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere rises over New York, writers like Nathan Larson can't seem to resist the urge to imagine the city in ruins.
He's not alone, of course. Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One is set in a New York City decimated by a zombie-making plague, which allows him to observe the complacency, routines, and lies that prop up our real-world idea of civilization. The comic-book series DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli places the island of Manhattan at the center of a new American Civil War, illuminating the real divisions of contemporary America and providing material for a critique of current U.S. foreign policy.
Nathan Larson’s Dewey Decimal novels follow a nameless man as he makes his way through a violent, Balkanized New York City of the near future. The first novel in the series, The Dewey Decimal System, was a taut, Walter Mosley-esque narrative abounding with corrupt officials, buried war crimes, and betrayals. Larson's second in the series, The Nervous System (out this week from Akashic Books) is a more overt commentary on contemporary city politics, but it also delves more deeply into the bleak, noirish, conjectural New York City Larson introduced in Dewey Decimal.
Our protagonist and Larson's narrator is a veteran of an obscure war and the subject of a series of shadowy government experiments. He's taken the name Dewey Decimal, which is a jarring device, a jovial name for a man who appears unbalanced and who is capable of brutal acts of violence. The name derives from his obsession with organizing and protecting the main branch of the New York Public Library from attack and decay, a proces which some would say has already begun in the real world.
(In a nice touch, one character refuses to refer to Decimal by his assumed name, instead dubbing him “Mr. X.”)
Decimal’s narrational style is one of the highlights of the book: he’s unreliable but fully aware of his own unreliability, a man obsessed with routines and (as the title suggests) systems, and detached enough in his account of events that shootings, chase scenes, and stakeouts feel invigorated.
As happens with sequels, there's the challenge of introducing brand-new characters while also tying them into the protagonist's history. If these people come from deep in Decimal's past, why didn't we hear about them in the first novel?
Here Larson takes advantage of his own creation: Decimal has those big gaps in his memory, that clandestine past; there seems much that is unknowable about his own life, perhaps especially by him. In the case of The Nervous System, that involves a corrupt conservative Senator, an unsolved murder hearkening back to the days of a more intact city, and a sinister group of paramilitary contractors led by a ex-cop named Nic Deluccia. Deluccia repeatedly implies a long history between himself and Decimal, and, over the course of the novel, offers an ominously plausible explanation for both Decimal’s current condition and for New York’s devastation. The married Senators at the center of the book allow Larson to riff on New York City machine politics, conservative homophobia, and the underside of populist politics (it can’t be coincidence that one has the last name of Koch, whether that alludes to the former mayor or the Koch brothers, or both).
Some of the action set-pieces work better than others. Larson, a soundtrack composer and former member of the post-punk band Shudder to Think, has a terrific sense of sentence-level rhythm and narrative pacing, and also knows when to drop a good music reference. When Decimal conducts a brutal abduction, the sequence is "soundtracked" by the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), meaning Decimal's actions are intercut with lyrical snatches from the album. Yet having this reminder that Decimal’s affable voice masks a capacity for horrific action intercut with the catchy, classic rap music gives it a kind of stylishness, and makes the reader almost willingly complicit. At other times the action feels outsized, as in a Midtown firefight where a helicopter gunship arrives on the scene. Yet even here Larson doesn't entirely give in to exploding things for their own sake; midway through the scene Decimal's faulty brain acts up and he loses track of who is shooting at him.
While there's plenty of hard-boiled convention at work, Larson takes time to give his characters and scenes the detail they deserve, whether it’s Decimal’s obsession with Paul Smith suits or this view of a ruined Third Avenue near the Chrysler Building:
Logos like FedEx and Starbucks and Cosi like hieroglyphics. I pass a pile of dead dogs, various breeds. I pass a shopping cart from Staples filled with printer cartridges. A Le Pain Quotidien, one of their country-wide “communal” tables half in and half out of the busted window.
Much of the novel’s action is set in and around Koreatown, and Larson’s imaginings of the shifts of that neighborhood’s fortunes (New York is nothing but a city obsessed with how its neighborhoods are constantly shapeshifting, even in the dystopian future) add some low-key speculative-fiction elements to the already-charged dose of noir.
“Never said I was a poet, habibi. I just like books,” Decimal says as the novel hurtles towards its close. And it’s his frankness, regardless of the horrors real and imagined in his past, that make his voice so compelling.
More by this author:
- Widowspeak's Molly Hamilton discusses how a Brooklyn band goes country
- Brooklyn-bred band the Babies seek inspiration from way out west