July 2011

Ben McLeod


The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson

As torture porn is an established genre of filmmaking, apocalypse porn has come into its own in the last ten years as well. Not simply the end-of-the-world craziness of Mad Max or The Road; more like watching a snuff film starring ourselves. Cloverfield and Time of the Wolf were movies about us, dying. Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Rick Moody's The Diviners and David Foster Wallace's short story "The Suffering Channel" were explicit in their subject matter and target: who Americans were before 9/11. Nathan Larson's debut novel The Dewey Decimal System is about what we may become. 

A zoned-out former soldier, suffering from some kind of (possibly PTSD-related) amnesia, wakes up in his Manhattan-post-catastrophe home, the New York Public Library on Forty-Second Street. Clearly trying to find or manufacture some kind of order in a city upended into feral wreckage, he's taken on the project of reorganizing the library's entire collection by the elegant but recently disparaged Dewey Decimal System. When he's not stacking and categorizing millions of books, he's an on-call problem-solver for New York's District Attorney, an office that seems less elected or appointed than self-declared or wrested by guile. No law clerk, Mr. Decimal (the name he's accepted) is a problem solver of the most basic and brutal sort, a job he goes about with the sort of affectless and impersonal smart-assedness we're used to from a Sam Spade or a Mike Hammer character. He does feel things, but because of his amnesia he doesn't know what they mean. 

His rigid System is another imposed order on the ruined city left in sinister shambles -- a Manhattan that is more like Samuel Delaney's Bellona than Gotham. An obsessive-compulsive set of rules about directions traveled, items carried, and hand sanitizer, the System obviously hinders his tasks but helps them in unexpected ways too, like any good system should. There is something worrisome in following a hero with a major disability, as the reader can only watch while the protagonist's weakness leads him into bad situations that would otherwise be easy to avoid -- this also makes Mr. Decimal more sympathetic. I was pulling for him to get his act together, even though I know that kind of thing doesn't really happen in pessimistic noir. 

It's a good thing there's a reason to be sympathetic with the narrator of The Dewey Decimal System, because when he's not fumbling around with basic tasks, he's a stone killer. Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald seemed reluctant to have their heroes wantonly kill their obstacles, but Larson lets Decimal shoot his way out of and into all kinds of situations. Again, it's not like the guy gets off on the killing, and even seems to feel bad about it sometimes (sometimes), but while he does have feelings he doesn't seem to know why. He also has that standard detective misanthropy that makes noir fiction so timeless: "I'm being tough on her, but plastic surgery in any amount just makes me want to puke. Call me judgmental, but it indicates a certain set of accompanying goals, fashion choices and behaviors. It's trashy and it means you don't like yourself." 

As a hard-boiled guy, Dewey Decimal is fairly subdued, although he has that impossible toughness of the action hero: waking up in a hospital after a major injury and surgery, he walks back out into the wildly violent streets of Manhattan, seemingly with no more handicap than most of us would suffer from a charley horse. But Decimal also gets a few get-out-of-death-free cards dealt to him that after a while seem to be more deus ex machina than luck. It's okay to expect a certain suspension of disbelief in detective fiction, but Nathan Larson really pushes it, and borrows against future satisfying payoffs in the plot that may or may not be worth it. 

Part of the convenience of a "near-future" setting is that the author isn't burdened with skeining out whole future timelines and trying to predict a plausible sequence of events. Larson uses this well. There are enough items of immediate recent history that the narrative doesn't seem to be happening too far away, but other clues and casually dropped comments indicate some other major events between today and page one. The ambiguity in details of whatever event changed the world (in The Dewey Decimal System "the world" means New York) lets the mind wander around and try and piece together the exact nature of what happened. Terrorism, domestic or international? An invasion? A plague? A catastrophic industrial accident? Various clues seem to indicate all of these things.   

This same ambiguity hovers around the narrator. Like a Murakami hero, his real name is not known to us; it would probably just be clutter. His ethnicity is also a big question mark. He hints at this or that lineage, but since he doesn't remember it doesn't seem to worry him. (This undefined racial background, the major city haunted by mysterious cataclysm, and the fact that people seem to know him before he meets them reminded me a lot of Delany's Dhalgren, although stylistically they are two totally separate beasts.) 

The Dewey Decimal System makes good use of a lot of the standards of detective fiction: there's corrupt city officials, vicious gangsters, a dangerous blonde with a mysterious past -- there's even a car chase or two. I think these are tributes to a genre transplanted into an interesting modern setting, even if it leans a little too heavily on post-9/11 weltschmerz. 

The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
Akashic Books
ISBN: 978-1617750106
200 pages