76 points, 4 stars
Genres: urban fantasy, magical (sur)realism
Alan has bought a house and fixed it up for himself to live in. Adam introduces himself to his neighbors. Then one of those neighbors announces she has wings, but that’s okay with Allen. His father is a mountain, his mother is a washing machine…and his brothers are different, too. Then two of Arthur’s brothers show up saying that a third is missing. They believe a fourth brother, who they teamed up to kill themselves years ago, killed the third.
“Alan understands. He himself has a secret or two. His father is a mountain; his mother is a washing machine; and among his brothers are a set of Russian nesting dolls.”
Alan is my spirit animal.
I had an insanely fun time reading this. It starts off weird and then…it just keeps going. I don’t typically read super weird stuff. Yet, when I read the line “his father is a mountain; his mother is a washing machine” in the blurb, I knew I had to read this. I’m so, so, SO glad I did.
Because Aaron is my spirit animal.
Andy is weird. He isn’t human. He doesn’t respond as a normal human would respond. He is unreasonably cheerful for no good reason. Andrew does the weirdest stuff, thinking it is normal, like just inviting himself into other people’s houses. You can tell he isn’t human, he is just too weird to be human. No one is that cheerful and positive. Yet, Adrian fakes being human really well.
Alan’s father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine—he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune-teller, and an island.
This little paragraph in one of the first few pages of the book tells you all you need to know about Austin’s family and how he grew up. Just how does a washing machine and a mountain raise a cadre of boys? They don’t. Who does? Alex. How did he get raised? Well, he had to raise himself.
The thing is, if we look past the surreal, this is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen a dysfunctional family life being described in urban fantasy. Like so many main characters that I have read before now, when they were growing up the family doesn’t function. The difference is, Asher has to raise himself and 6 brothers, one of whom is even more dysfunctional than the family is.
Doug was the one he’d help murder. All the brothers had helped with the murder, even Charlie (Clem, Carlos, Cory), the island, who’d opened a great fissure down his main fault line and closed it up over Doug’s corpse, ensuring that their parents would be none the wiser.
Yes, you read that right. Everyone teamed up to kill one of the brothers and hide it from their parents. This is a book of revenge. In urban fantasy, typically we’re on the side. We’re trying to get revenge against someone for some wrong. Instead, we’re trying to stop someone from getting revenge on you. It is an amazing turn of events.
Yet it isn’t without merit. Damien is an unholy terror. He cried for an entire year straight when he was born. Nothing could soothe him. When he grew up, he was constantly hurting people, calling them names. Dallas would say horrible things, threatening to kill everyone. Got kicked out of kindergarten within 15 minutes of his first day. He was broken from the start, and no one could fix him.
Again, once you look past the weirdness of this book, this happens to people. Sometimes, children are born broken. It takes a skilled person to guide them into being a person who doesn’t kill, who doesn’t torture. Yet, remember: Amir is raising all of his brothers. He is a child himself. Here is where this bends away from reality, because all of his brothers kill Darrell when he gets to be too much for him, and they get away with it for years. And then he comes back for his revenge. Again, in urban fantasy we’ve seen characters who are broken before, but this is the best, most realistic version I’ve actually seen of this before.
As the eldest, Alan was the first to recognize the early signs of her pregnancy. The laundry loads of diapers and play clothes he fed into her belly unbalanced more often, and her spin cycle became almost lackadaisical, so the garments had to hang on the line for days before they stiffened and dried completely.
The details of her conception were always mysterious to Alan.
To you and me, both, Abraham. The entire scene where the washing machine gives birth is magical. Absolutely magical. His musings on how she got pregnant in the first place just.. perfect. The worldbuilding in this book is as best as I could possibly have hoped for when I knew I had to read this book. There are so many excerpts I wish I could show because it just was perfect to read. I don’t want to inundate you with them and spoil the magic of the book. Also, I didn’t highlight them all properly.
“Who said anything about money? How much do you think UUNet and PSI charge each other to exchange traffic with one another? Who benefits when UUNet and PSI cross-connect? Is UUNet the beneficiary of PSI’s traffic, or vice versa? Internet access only costs money at the edge—and with a mesh-net, there is no edge anymore. It’s penetration at the center, just like the Devo song.”
Unfortunately, there is that. Weirdly, this book is sort of about creating a homebrew internet service piggybacking off a proper internet service by creating boxes that somehow share the internet? Wooosh, as that all goes over my head. I almost nodded off a few times reading these parts. A strangely large portion of this book is spent on this, and I still am not quite sure why. We actually keep going back to it, which ends up confusing me quite a bit.
It confuses me because the narration kind of breaks down at the end (and if you want to make the joke “Better call the Maytag repairman”, you’ve already been beaten to the punch). The entire book we’re popping between scenes in the past and present. This is especially confusing because there aren’t actually any chapters in this book… Anyway. In the first half of the book, this was pretty well done, moving back and forth between Alvin’s childhood and the present. Halfway through the book, however, I had a really difficult time keeping up. It got increasingly more confusing about where we were in the story, because it started being told out of order. I had to backup a few times to figure out if I just missed something, or if something was skipped.
The most confusing part was the story Anthony was writing. At the start of the book, Antonio said he was going to write a book. It takes him a really long time to get to this book. Yet, when he does get to it, it is threaded within the story. I..don’t really understand what happened there. I’m not used to reading stuff with meaning to it, and I just cannot decipher what Doctorow means by that story or by threading it through at the end.
Sidenote: This has been the easiest time I have remembered who was who after having to set the book aside for extended time in ages (I had to sleep). This is hilarious because most of the characters never had a name they stuck to. I found it amusing to see all the names that were used throughout this book for the same person.
You’ve seen the ones for Allan, the oldest. The second oldest, the fortune teller: Brian, Brandon, Billy, Ben. The island isn’t mentioned as much, and one of the quotes above has some for him. Then there is the Deadman: Darien, Daniel, Dylan. My favourites are the nesting dolls. Most of the time they’re called in trio, because one cannot exist without the other. Edward-Francis-Gregory, Eric-Fred-George, Ethan-Fabio-Grayson. Even once they were called E-F-G. I loved this naming scheme.
Sidenote #2: Who uses “mons” in a sex scene??
I enjoyed the hell out of this read, and I really do recommend it. This was so delightfully bizarre.
Check this out if:
- you’re looking for something truly weird
- a dysfunctional family dynamic that is strangely realistic sounds interesting
- you want to see how a character in a book can become someone’s spirit animal
Don’t bother if:
- randomness isn’t for you
- a story where the timeline jumps repeatedly makes you less interested in the overall story
- technobabble for 13 year old technology (where a 32 MB zip drive is considered anything more than useless) makes you fall asleep