(2014) Louis Armand, Equus Press, £6 / €8.00 , pbk, 363pp, ISBN 978-0-957-12137-9
This book tells of the goings-on of five people and it tells them separately for they are in different places and different times. They may be connected but this is not entirely clear - like much in this book, it is left to the reader to figure out.
The first chapter opens with someone running; he does not know why or where to. Indeed, he cannot remember who he is, where he is, or what he was doing; all he knows is that he is injured and he needs to get to somewhere safer. To start with he feels he has a voice in his head telling him what to do, as if he has done this many times before, but that fades into silence (perhaps as if each iteration takes a different direction).
The second chapter introduces us to Joblard, whose various 'employments' include being a sort of minder/fixer for the dubious Mr. Bludhorn, a man whose 'financial interests' include making low-grade porn movies. In chapter three we meet Lawson, an Australian of mixed Aborigine-American parentage. Chapter four brings us to Osborne, a man of apparently little fixed abode and who runs errands for the mysterious Doctor Suliman. The next chapter brings us to Shinwah, who seems to be some sort of agent or operative from the future.
From here, the individual stories start to emerge as the book cycles through sets of five chapters as each story progresses. The individual progress is slow as each chapter is short, usually between two and six pages. This moves the individual stories along in an interesting way but the shortness of each chapter, whilst providing a tension, is also frustrating.
Joblard rides about London on his BSA Gold Star, performing the various tasks and chasing ups required of him. He is physically large and strong, and probably not very pretty, and is clearly quite persuasive where a little “persuasion” is required. At Bludhorn's request, he recently acquired a set of “interesting” photos from Johnny Fluoride, though his next visit to said gentleman results in the latter falling in the river. He is a little surprised, though, when the body is fished out a while later and found to be headless, it having been blown off by a shot gun! From there on, Joblard rides round 'investigating' and discovers more beheaded bodies (including one on his own sofa) and a number of dwarves (as in small people from the circus).
Lawson is asked to do a job by her old friend Dix, ostensibly a climate modeller but mostly a computer hacker. His monitoring of 'intelligence' reports indicates that maybe a meteor hit what was probably a communications satellite and bits have fallen to Earth. No-one seems to know who it belongs to but everyone wants to find it. He has plotted the trajectory of a large fragment and it has landed in the Outback, near Woomera, not too far from where they are. If she is quick, Lawson can retrieve it for him. Unfortunately, other folks are quicker than expected and this time Dix's hacking has been noticed.
On a snowy winter's night in New York, Ground Zero has been hit by what may have been a meteor. Even as Doctor Suliman casts doubt that this could be any sort of coincidence, he gives Osborne an errand to run - simply collect an item and drop off a case in payment. The item, though, is more like an infection, and Osborne finds himself running through the streets chased by, well, he is not sure what. And then it gets weirder for him, almost hallucinogenic.
So far everything has happened in our time period, or thereabouts. However, Shinwah and her boss de Laurentiis come from somewhere in the future and perform clandestine operations in their past, presumably for commercial gain. There are several such organisations and, like all such agencies, they have no mercy for each other. Their latest operation had been in Cairo, a Cairo somewhere in their past but our future. Declaring it a trap, de Laurentiis had shot their contact and they had escaped. As a result, they are now on another mission, just a little later than our time and again things are not going right. She finds herself back in Cairo and her new contact explains that the geo-time system for monitoring agents has somehow failed and, with luck, she can escape the agency that controls her. As with Osborne, things for Shinwah just get weirder.
It transpires that our running man is also in Cairo, but one further in the future where the city is under a vast dome to protect it from the ravages of the outside world. It seems that he might have been the one shot by de Laurentiis but, like everything in this book, it is not certain. He finds himself being helped by an albino woman who seems to know who he is, or maybe what he is worth, and she leads him to someone who has been waiting to see him. His host tells him an ancient tale of a traveller searching for knowledge and of possible futures. And yes, it just gets weirder for him as well.
After lots of to-ing and fro-ing, and lots of incidental detail, suddenly I was at the end of the book. Nobody's story had reached a meaningful end; they just continued as before (or worse) or else everything had gone really weird for them. Perhaps I have missed something, or maybe I am supposed to work it all out for myself. Perhaps the author has figured it all out and assumes that we will as well, or maybe he just has some ideas and is presenting them to us so that we can make what we will out of them. Do you remember watching Lost? The writers of that had all sorts of ideas to make the plane crash and the island very mysterious but in the end it transpired that they themselves had never really figured out what it was all about … just lots of ideas and leave it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps it is the same with this, or maybe the author is just trying to say that there are many possibilities and that each decision can lead to a different future. To be honest, I am not sure what he meant.
Throughout the writing is very good. The individual stories tick along well and interestingly though the choppy nature of the short chapters hides the fact that often nothing much happens to move the story along despite the number of pages that are turning. There is lots of good detail and description and each story line has its own consistent feel and atmosphere. I enjoyed reading it but, in the end, felt disappointed and let down about the way it sort of petered out and left everything to the reader to resolve.
I am reminded of an occasion during my school days. My homework had been to write an essay on what we had learnt in that day's history lesson (something to do with Parliament as I recall); I regurgitated the facts and got an average mark - and the comment 'So?' written in red ink. I was perplexed so I asked the teacher what he meant. "So?" he said, "You repeated the facts but what did it mean, what was the significance?" I did not know. At the end of school that day I was invited into the Staff Room and spent a fascinating hour as he explained and discussed the history leading up to the event, the whys and wherefores of the situation, the outcome and why it mattered to us today. Until then, to me history had been just a list of boring dates but from then on I realised that history is composed of events, of happenings, of one thing leading to another, and they all combined to make the world we live in today: it is all relevant. I owe a lot to that teacher for he made me think about things in a way I had not before, about interconnectivity.
This book has reminded me of that occasion. It is well written and the text carried me along, but when I got to the end I found myself repeating my teacher's question – 'So?'
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