October 3, 2008

Book review: "Passenger," by Ronald Malfi

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Passenger
By Ronald Malfi
Delirium Books / ISBN: 978-1-934546-04-8

(Don't worry! I won't be revealing any spoilers today!)

As I've said here before, I have an ambiguous relationship with the literary genre known as horror; I neither love it nor hate it, neither seek it or nor ignore it. After all, I'm an avowed fan of genre work, just other ones like science-fiction a lot more; and I try to be a champion of smaller work too, from all the various small and basement presses out there, and there's certainly a lot of horror being published these days under such auspices. In fact, it's a very interesting time to be a horror writer or fan these days, because there's a whole rise right now in a smart underground new subgenre in the scene, the so-called "New Weird" tales* that have as much to do with psychological horror and setting a moody tone as they do haunted cars or possessed teenage girls or buckets of blood or whatnot. It's no more than a reflection of what a lot of the rest of the arts has been going through in the last decade as well; that as the corporate conglomerates have taken over all these publishing companies, and turned all artistic decisions into bottom-line financial ones, the only thing coming out of the major companies genre-wise anymore is either dumbed-down crap (cough cough, DaVinci Code) or the overmarketed remainder-bin latest by some tired old hack (cough cough, Stephen King, cough cough, oh, excuse me, I have something in my throat!) That drives the smart, cutting-edge stuff down to the underground level, so the theory goes, which is why you find the most interesting genre stuff these days among the small and basement presses. So the theory goes.

Passenger, by Ronald Malfi

And that brings us to underground hero Ronald Malfi, a New Weird horror writer with a rabid cult following; he's no stranger to the CCLaP site, either, with his last book Via Dolorosa being reviewed here in 2007. And now he's got a new one, called Passenger, put out by the cutting-edge basement press Delirium; and like his previous, it's a slow-moving, beautifully written minimalist horror tale, one light on plot but heavy on tone. There's a good reason it's known as cutting-edge horror, because it's not the kind of horror tale you normally expect; and some people are simply going to love that, and others hate it, which is the chance any author takes when being cutting-edge, and they know it which is why you shouldn't really feel bad for them. Given the passion and sincerity behind what Malfi commits to the page, I'm sure he actually prefers to have a smaller but more fervent fan base for his work, with books out on smaller presses but with audience members who will lay down in front of tanks for him. It has its problems to be sure, which I'll be getting into in a bit; but in general I can say that I liked Passenger much more than its predecessor, and that Malfi is getting more and more things right with each new book he puts out.

And maybe that's because I knew a little more this time what to expect? After all, when you compare the two novels not by actual plotline but by traits and tricks and styles, they're actually quite similar; both take place in interesting cities (Baltimore in this latest case), both largely abandon a traditional three-act plot (or at least stretch a minimalist one as far as it can go), and both are more concerned with setting a spooky tone than in actually jumping out and yelling, "BOO!" In the case of Passenger, for example, our story starts with our hero coming-to in the back of a public bus, a gaunt white male who suddenly realizes that he has selective amnesia, that he can remember the generalities of life (how to talk, how to walk) but not anything about himself, his identity, where he is or what he's doing or how he got on the bus in the first place. Panicked, of course, he ends up wandering out into the Baltimore streets in a daze; eventually he notices a street address written on his hand, goes over, and finds a barely furnished apartment waiting for him, and absolutely no clues whatsoever about who he might be.

And thus do we officially fall down the 228-page rabbit-hole of Malfi's odd universe, as we follow our many-named hero into his random and arbitrary explorations of the city and his life, falling in with one crowd or another sometimes simply by walking by and having them grab him. That for example is how he ends up falling in with a group of severe-lower-class black musicians and odd-jobbers over on the poor side of the city, after discovering accidentally one night at a bar that he's actually a virtuoso piano player, and a veritable walking encyclopedia of popular songs. And that's how he also ends up at a run-down church, where he has a bizarre afternoon with a cancer-stricken nun; and that's how he also ends up in a whole host of other odd and menacing and just plain strange situations, all of them filled with unique side characters and strong, assured dialogue.

But nothing really happens for most of Passenger, see, which is bound to drive many three-act purists crazy; it's not until the very last 20 pages that our perpetually non-informed hero finally figures out his identity and the reason behind his amnesia, all of it coming at once instead of a slow realization over the first 200 pages. No, instead the first 200 pages are used almost exclusively to set a mood, to wallow in description and language, to enjoy the mere establishment of an odd and near-violent fictional world that is almost just like our own but not quite. Malfi's Baltimore is one of dank, subterranean nightclubs; Lynchian urban bachelor pads with garish shag carpeting and disco balls; late-night sweats and aimless bus rides and frantic couplings with near-strangers just for a sense of closeness. In fact, speaking of David Lynch, instead of another writer, what this novel actually most reminds me of is that filmmaker's long-time cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, the visual genius behind the look and feel of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Ang Lee's Hulk, Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, and a whole lot more. Malfi's writing reminds me of warmly-colored, dark, spooky back hallways, full of red velvet curtains dramatically lit, a certain sense of disturbing quiet and industrial background noise infusing the entire scene.

That's the real reason to read Malfi's work, definitely this book in particular, is to really celebrate that kind of sucking-in that a well-written book can do, the way it can build an atmosphere that can sometimes wrap all the way around you as a reader, the kind that makes you forget you're actually sitting in a chair and holding a book (or eBook, in my case, even a harder way to get sucked into a novel). There are things to be improved, to be sure; although he's better at it this time than in Via Dolorosa, for example, Malfi is still too guilty of badly-written so-called "ebonics" dialogue (or the rhythm and pattern and slang of urban blacks, a very hard thing to get right), and also has a tendency to include in his works what the Onion AV Club calls a "Magical Negro" character. All in all, though, I was really pleased with this novel, and was really glad I sat down and read it; for all of you who enjoy intelligent, poetic tales of weirdness, ones that refuse to be rushed, let me please recommend Passenger to you.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.0
Characters: 8.5
Style: 9.0
Overall: 8.6

Read even more about Passenger: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | YouTube trailer

*And to be clear, there's a "New Weird" subgenre among cutting-edge science-fiction writers right now too, largely led (and defined) by author and essayist Jeff Vandermeer. In fact, both subgenres rightly claim as their roots the original "weird" tales of the Victorian Age, the Nathaniel Hawthornes and Oscar Wildes and Edgar Allen Poes. This one literary trend in the 1800s then split in the 1900s into a more spooky supernatural wing and a more sciencey future-obsessed one, which is where we get the modern horror and science-fiction genres we know today.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:36 PM, October 3, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |