May 2005

Tom Bernard

fiction

The Meq by Steve Cash

Consider immortality. Imagine never aging, never getting sick, and recovering rapidly and fully from any injury, from the merest scratch to a broken back. Imagine bearing witness to the fall of ancient civilizations, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the rise of European empires and the Industrial Age. Sounds pretty good, right?

Now imagine that this gift comes with a limitation. You get the blessings of immortality, but are condemned to spend your immortal life being perennially 12 years old. Now it starts sounding like the After School Special from Hell, doesn’t it?

This state of eternal pre-pubescence is the central conceit of Steve Cash’s The Meq. The Meq are a mysterious, even legendary, race that has been around since the dawn of humanity. Fortunately, immortality is not a life sentence. Individual Meq remain locked in their precocious immortality until they meet their true love; in keeping with the requirements of the form, Cash develops an entire vocabulary of Meq-specific technobabble to give the elements and traditions of their immortal existence an air of gravitas, but the bottom line is that every Meq has one, and only one soulmate with whom they are fated to bond. Upon meeting that soulmate the Meq can elect to commence a normal aging process and live out the remainder of their allotted life span as normal humans.

While the Meq understand how their mating system functions, their origins are a mystery. Their purpose is unclear. Their destiny, while rumored to be important, is tantalizingly nonspecific. There is talk in the book about a mysterious and ritualistic convergence scheduled for the end of the 20th century in which all will be explained, and there is a strong implication that various characters in the book know more than they are letting on about pretty much everything; while the book would be much shorter and duller if the various characters in the know just spilled their guts in one brief raging torrent of exposition, the lengths to which these characters go to avoid advancing the plot at anything more than a snail’s pace stretches credulity, but serves to artificially extend the timeframe of the book to reinforce the notion of the titular characters’ immortality.

It falls to Zianno Zezen, better known as Z, to unravel the mysteries of the Meq. When his parents die on his 12th birthday, he begins a journey through time and across the face of the earth, one that brings him into contact with allies both human and Meq, and which, this being a fantasy epic and all, positions him to be the savior of his people. Or something.

There are Good Meq and Bad Meq. Z is on the side of the presumptive angels (although the older immortals keep so much information from him throughout the book it is hard to be certain of this). He serves as the keeper of one of five mystical Stones, a set of mysterious, possibly magical, Meqguffins that may hold the key to the whole structure of Meq existence. Or which give the bearers special powers. Or which are maybe just pretty rocks. Or something.

Since every hero needs a correspondingly evil nemesis, Cash provides Z with a foil in the person of the operatically malign Meq known somewhat pretentiously as the Fleur-du-Mal. Thus, the novel becomes an account of Z’s quest to understand his heritage while trying to overcome the machinations of his murderous nemesis.

The Meq is a thoroughly pedestrian fantasy, by which I mean the various characters in the book walk around a lot. Granted, sometimes there are horses involved, but Cash’s cast of characters goes through a lot of boot leather over the course of the novel. Indeed, for the Meq, walking is the currency with which they pay for their immortality, or rather, the mechanism through which Cash measures the passage of time. Whenever the plot begins to stall, or there’s a chance that meaningful revelation might threaten to undermine the structure of cryptic comments, implied secrets, or significant pauses with productive action, the offending character gets called away on evidence the flimsiness of which is rivaled only by the implausibility of these characters’ subsequent reunions dozens of years and thousands of miles from where they began.

When this happens, the other characters start walking. And walking. And walking. In this way, the years pass. History is the backdrop against which these characters play out their drama. The Boxer Rebellion. The 1906 World’s Fair in St. Louis; World War I. The 1918 influenza epidemic. To reinforce the Meq’s tangential involvement with world events, Cash indulges in the obsession of the historical fictionaut. He name-drops incessantly. Real historical figures, from Frank James to Scott Joplin to T.S. Eliot put in appearances throughout the book. These characters contribute nothing to the evolution of the story, existing simply as points of reference in the historical landscape.

And so, at various junctures, Z goes to sea, followed by a reunion with his human and Meq associates, one that leads him on a quest to China, through which he walks for another eight years, before abruptly returning home (even when the full weight of the mystery of his existence compels him to remain where he is) for a brief interlude marred by a tragedy that sets off a new round of globe-trotting, this time compelling him to crisscross northern Africa for a dozen years.

These long quests are the mechanism by which Cash reinforces the strangeness of the Meq’s immortality. During these sojourns, the novel’s human characters continue to age, and the world continues to change. Z’s human friends are a resilient lot, fully accepting the strangeness of Meq existence, and taking their comings and goings in almost improbable stride, even when their involvement in Meq affairs exacts a terrible price.

One of the quests in question concerns the abduction of a young child. Without delving too deeply into plot details, this child becomes a pawn in the Fleur-du-Mal’s campaign of psychological torture against Z, and suffers as a result.

[Full disclosure: some people don’t like cruelty to animals, others get righteously (and justifiably) indignant about racism, sexism or homophobia in their fiction. Me? I really don’t deal well with the Bad Shit Happens to Kids plot device. I’ll grant it’s a valid topic for narrative consideration -- I believe writers should and must challenge our sensibilities -- and I’ll even grant that it can be deployed effectively in a story, but when that happens, the writer in question needs to work pretty damn hard to convince me that such a challenge serves a meaningful purpose. Otherwise, I can’t help but see it as anything but an exercise in callousness and cruelty. Cash fails to meet my standard of proof.]

Not only does Cash engage in a narrative victimization of a child, but, upon resolving the matter -- and one gets the sense that the plot point is merely that, a problem, an intellectual exercise, an excuse to send his protagonist into the desert for a span of years, thereby allowing time to pass -- he allows things to return to something approaching normal. His narrator pays lip service to the idea that this experience has wrought changes in the effected character, but the character, who serves primarily as a plot device anyway, is never shown adapting to the experience.

Speaking of adaptation, the various Meq characters are remarkably sanguine about their immortal condition. Given the horrors usually attributed to junior high school, it’s hard to imagine spending 5,000 years or more locked in a 12-year old body. From a storytelling perspective, it would seem Cash had a fairly narrow age window in which to trap his characters. Too young, and the characters lose all independent mobility; even at 12, they pass through the adult world with remarkably little hassle. Too old, and logic and reason start giving way to the ravages of puberty. It’s one thing to walk the earth for 5,000 years. It’s quite another to spend 5,000 years as a teenager caught in the throes of raging hormone poisoning.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Meq is going to depend on how much patience you have for the accretion of unresolved issues masquerading as plot development. If your taste runs to the moving target meanings of X-Files type conspiracy where needlessly complicating the puzzle trumps logical resolution, then you’re in luck. If you found, say, The DaVinci Code gripping and engaging rather than utterly predictable, then the good news is there will be a sequel. If you find such things compelling when done well, but tedious when poorly executed, and if you find a unnecessarily portentous lexicon of arcane terms in imaginary dialects a poor substitute for narrative clarity, then you might be better served focusing your efforts in some other quarter.

The Meq by Steve Cash
Del Rey Books
ISBN 0345470923
416 Pages