July 25, 2008

Book review: "The Resurrectionist," by Jack O'Connell

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The Resurrectionist
By Jack O'Connell
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / ISBN: 978-1-56512-576-6

As some of you already know, I have been a twenty-year fan and student now of the related 20th-century art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, ever since first getting exposed to them as an undergraduate in the '80s, and in fact is the closest I arguably come to being legitimately "scholarly" on any topic, in terms of the amount of knowledge I have about the movements. And as I've talked about here before (most famously during my review of the DVD compilation The Short Films of David Lynch), one of the things I've learned through such study is that what we in the general culture think of these days as "Surrealist" is a far cry from how the original Surrealists defined it; because when these original cutting-edge artists of the 1910s, '20s and '30s, the ones being equally defined by the new fields of Modernism and Freudian psychoanalysis, declared that they were trying to "capture the essence of a dream" in their artistic work, they actually meant that they were trying to capture the elusive pattern and rhythm of a dream itself, the simultaneous logic and illogic that within a dream we so easily accept, that is so hard for us to accept when in a conscious state. As the decades have progressed, though, as early Modernism turned into late Modernism, Pop Art, and finally Postmodernism, the entire concept of Surrealism has been sorta co-opted by the advertising industry and Hollywood, to now mostly mean "Hey, look! Weird sh-t!"

The Resurrectionist, by Jack O'Connell

What this means, then, is that there's actually two kinds of Surrealism out there now, and with discerning fans being able to tell the difference immediately: there is the pure, old-school Surrealism of the original movement, authors like Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell, who construct elaborate experiments in actually reproducing the logic and emotions of a dreamlike state; and then there is the cartoonish, Hollywoodized version of Surrealism, where an author simply writes about strange crap, hoping that the distraction of the crap itself will hide the fact that there's nothing really compelling behind it. And which of these, I hear you asking, best describes the book under review today, the 2008 cult hit and so-called contemporary Surrealist tale The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell? Well, I won't keep you in suspense anymore; it's the second, the second, oh Lord it's the second, an infinitely frustrating collection of random unexplained weird horsesh-t whipped at the reader's face at breakneck speed, none of it making any sense and none of it connecting to the other weird random parts, basically the equivalent of handing a person a box full of Christmas ornaments and yelling, "Shake it! It's pretty! Shake it! It's pretty!" That might be, but it certainly doesn't make it good literature, nor does it make it an accurate reflection of what a dream is actually like; and that's the difference between someone like O'Connell and an actual Surrealist, because O'Connell ultimately hopes that you'll be distracted by the shiny ornaments being shaken about, and not notice that there's no actual tree.

In fact, O'Connell starts throwing out the random crap early and quick in The Resurrectionist; it is the story of sad-sack pharmacist Sweeney, caretaker of a son named Danny who is in a persistent coma, through an accident he still silently blames on his ex-wife. His life a shambles, dealing unsuccessfully with anger issues, Sweeney has been lured to a little town called Quinsigamond in order to work for the mysterious private Peck Clinic, mostly as a way of getting his son accepted into their secretive yet widely admired coma-care program. But see, right here is where O'Connell already starts going wrong with this story, by making even the details of the clinic itself inconsistent; although our story is set in the modern world, for some reason the nurses all have old-fashioned '50s uniforms, out there at the forbidding Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere that serves as the clinic's campus. Plus, for this being a bizarre, private, family-funded organization, one that doesn't share its results or even have a clear mission, the entire rest of the contemporary medical community seems to be big-enough fans; this is what took Sweeney out there in the first place, after all, is from having his boring ol' "real-world" doctors in Ohio recommend the clinic to him, despite the clinic itself literally being like something ripped out of an old Frankenstein movie.

Now, fans will say that this is exactly how it should be, that The Resurrectionist is supposed to be filled with weird crap that makes no sense because that's what Surrealism is; but that's not what Surrealism is, at least how the original Surrealists who came up with the term defined it. Actual Surrealism is supposed to make sense, just the kind of twisted, illogical sense that we can only accept while in a dream state; the details of the environment, though, for just one good example, are supposed to actually relate to each other within a Surrealist tale, not just exist in their own hermetically weird states alongside all the other bizarre details. And that's exactly how this book feels, especially the further you get into it, that O'Connell simply wrote down a bunch of random stuff that popped into his head and sounded "weird" to him, without bothering to relate any of it to each other or even adhere to the most basic precepts of those concepts. Like, one of the running ideas in The Ressurectionist is that Danny had been a big fan of this giant children's media empire called "Limbo," consisting of a hit TV show and action figures and merchandise and a long-running comic book, and O'Connell even includes a number of issues of the comic in the actual manuscript of the book; but why call it a comic, I wonder, when they're actually fully narrative short stories? And what hit children's TV show in the 2000s is possibly going to be about a group of eastern European circus freaks in the 1920s, who wander aimlessly through a fictional foreign land named after the Yiddish word for Hell, living a bleak and torture-filled life and spouting existentialist dialogue more appropriate for a Beckett play than any Japanimation children's show in existence?

Sure, it's weird and random, I'll give you that; but if all I want is weird and random, I can sit at home whenever I want, flipping through television channels and watching two seconds at a time of each, for two or three hours in a row. Like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is weird and random; and like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is not nearly what I'd call an entertaining artistic experience. What I want from a Surrealist project is a world that almost makes complete sense, but with just a whiff of strangeness around its corners, a fleeting glimpse of something moving just on the edge of my vision. What I want from a Surrealist project is something that makes me feel the way I do when I'm actually dreaming, a moment for example where a friend flaps his arms in the middle of a conversation and flies away, and I don't even think twice about it; what I don't want is a collection of random details that all draw undue attention to themselves, each of them standing in the corner of the room and waving their arms and screaming, "Look at me! Look at me! I'M WEIRD!" And unfortunately, that's mostly what The Resurrectionist consists of, with certainly there not being a compelling story holding it all together, nor compelling characters, nor even a consistent personal style.

In fact, here's the simple insulting truth of the matter; that by the time I had reached the end, I cared about the story and was invested in the characters so little that I didn't even bother reading the last ten pages, simply because I could no longer even follow whatever the hell was going on with the castle and the devil and the chicken-boy or whatever the f-ck it all was. And that's a terrible, terrible thing to say about a novel -- that after reading 300 pages of it, you didn't care enough to bother with what's supposed to be the most important ten pages of all -- and I think says more about my opinion of this book than probably anything else I might be tempted to write. (And I'm tempted to write a whole lot more about just how frustrated this book made me, starting with the fact that the entire town of Quinsigamond made no sense whatsoever. Is it...in the cyberpunk future? No, wait, our story's set in the modern day; so why is there this whole district made up of fully-stocked warehouses that were all abandoned at a moment's notice for no explainable reason, that have all been illegally turned into "world of tomorrow" neon-covered homemade pubs? And what's with the cartoonishly evil bikers? And why do they all keep saying "Bangkok" when referring to the city? UGH, THIS F-CKING BOOK!) In fact, you know what? I think I'm just going to cut my losses at this point, stop writing this review, and just walk away from the entire trainwreck known as The Resurrectionist for good. See you later.

Out of 10:
Story: 0.9
Characters: 1.4
Style: 6.6
Overall: 2.7

Read even more about The Resurrectionist: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:26 AM, July 25, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |