Monday, April 14, 2014

the last book I read

O-Zone by Paul Theroux.

There's been an apocalypse! Yeah, another one. This one seems to have been caused by the US government trying to dispose of several thousand tonnes of nuclear waste by stuffing it into some caves in the Ozarks, with predictably disastrous results, i.e. whole swathes of Missouri and neighbouring states rendered uninhabitable glowing wastelands. It never rains but it pours, and at around the same time the Big One has hit California, chopping Los Angeles in half and creating a new area of low-lying land called the Landslip, populated by various undesirables.

All of which has made the city-dwellers (seemingly any city, though most of the action here centres on New York) super-paranoid about being infiltrated from outside by the great unwashed (and/or starving/maimed/irradiated etc.), and so they instigate a ruthless system of checkpoints on entry and exit from the city, and employ a whole host of private security firms to police the streets, occasionally offing some innocent civilians who've been unwise enough to take a stroll after dark. Not that many people do that, though, as everyone's got their own personal jet-rotor which they use to shuttle to and from the landing pads on the roofs of their high-rise apartment blocks.

The areas affected by the eco-catastrophe retain a fascination for the city-dwellers, though, even though you need a permit and a load of protective gear to be allowed to travel out there. Fortunately Hardy Allbright works for a company that invests in vast weather-influencing technology and is always on the lookout for vast open spaces to be exploited. So on the pretext of doing some research in "O-Zone", as the area is know known, Hardy organises a New Year's jaunt out there as a novelty New Year's party for some friends and family, including his wife Moura, son Fisher (aka Fizzy; it later transpires that he's strictly only Moura's son, as there was some murky artificial insemination thing going on) and brother Hooper. It's basically your standard New Year's bash with some wine and nibbles, plus some anti-radiation suits for everyone and the addition of some deadly ray-guns just in case the area turns out not to be as uninhabited as it's meant to be.

Unsurprisingly there turn out to be people about, just wandering about eating nuts and berries (and probably the odd three-headed beaver) without so much as a bar-coded identity card between them. And when the party meets up with some of them during an excursion into the wilderness, pleasantries are soon exchanged in the form of disintegration rays, two of the primitives are offed in an explodey fashion and the party quickly sours and the partiers return to New York.

Hooper Allbright has some video footage of the excursion, though, and soon becomes obsessed with watching it over and over again, particularly the section featuring the lovely willowy 15-year-old girl, who he quickly concludes that he is in love with, and sets about organising another expedition into O-Zone to find her. He takes Fizzy with him as technical backup, Fizzy just happening to be some sort of tech-savvy super-nerd, with the usual associated raft of social interaction difficulties. Inevitably there is another confrontation and mutual grabbing of hostages, Hooper jet-rotoring off back to New York with the leggy 15-year-old and Fizzy falling into the hands of a band of "aliens", who aren't really aliens at all but various people dumped in O-Zone by the private security firms at the secret behest of the New York authorities who didn't want them in the city.

Hooper is too busy entertaining his new lady friend, so eventually Hardy decides that he'd better organise some sort of rescue expedition to go and look for Fizzy, and enlists the help of some contacts in Godseye, one of the terrifyingly deranged private vigilante groups. They head out of the city and discover that not only is there a huge expanse of America out there that's neither New York nor O-Zone, is largely indifferent to the problems of either, and is just getting on with life as it has done for decades, but also that maybe Fizzy doesn't want to be found.

O-Zone was published in 1986 and was Theroux's first proper-sized novel since his most famous book The Mosquito Coast in 1981 (the intervening Doctor Slaughter was a long short story, or a novella at best). While the setting is very different, a lot of the central themes are the same - the dire consequences of man's losing touch with the natural world, forgetting how to make things, cut down trees, start fires, roast three-headed beavers, all that stuff, and the dehumanising and alienating effect of too much technology. The "science fiction" setting is unique in Theroux's novels, and I'm not sure it really works. Too many unanswered questions, for one thing - how long ago are these catastrophic events meant to have happened? What area was affected? What about the rest of America - places like Florida, well away from the range of the radiation leak or the west coast earthquakes? Can we have a map? Even Riddley Walker gave us a map, and that was pretty vague about a lot of detail.

Other little plot annoyances: the whole business with Hooper's abduction of Bligh (the nubile 15-year-old girl) is a bit Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in her quick acceptance of her fate and acquiescence into a relationship with Hooper. And the sub-plot about Moura's search for the anonymous "donor" who fathered Fizzy is a bit inconsequential, which makes it all the more odd that it's allowed to provide the epilogue to the story, to no particular purpose. It's also quite long (547 pages in my Penguin edition) for a book in which not a huge amount actually happens.

Incidentally the weird stylised mask-wearing ritual attached to the "donation" process, presumably to draw attention away from its being just some anonymous fucking, is reminiscent of the similar rituals in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (a much better book, it must be said). The setting of a small amount of the action in a post-Big One California also echoes the similar setting of Virtual Light. And the concealment of nuclear waste by just hiding barrels of the stuff in holes in the ground was faintly reminiscent of the bit at the start of the Simpsons episode Marge vs. The Monorail where Mr. Burns gets arrested stuffing barrels into tree trunks in the park.

I stand by my earlier unreserved recommendation of The Mosquito Coast as the Theroux book you really have to read; if you want other novels I'd suggest the semi-autobiographical My Secret History, the MR James-esque ghost story (but with extra sex) The Black House and the grimy London-based The Family Arsenal. O-Zone isn't as good as any of those, so I suppose it gets categorised as a flawed but interesting genre experiment. If it's specifically a post-apocalyptic novel you're after, you'll probably be better off with The Road, Riddley Walker, The Handmaid's Tale, The Chrysalids or any of a whole host of others.

I bought O-Zone shortly after it came out, in the midst of a big splurge of buying up all the Theroux books I could get my hands on in the wake of reading The Mosquito Coast. That means it's been sitting on my bookshelves for something like 26-27 years without being read, which I suspect is some sort of record.

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