Tuesday, July 5

Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot

This is going to be a real toughie of a first review for the blog, not only because I was so confused about what was going on most of the time that it's difficult for me to summarise the damn book, but also because I just don't know how I feel about it.

But let's try.

We begin with a straightforward (it's all relative, right?) story about Woo-jin, the best dishwasher in this post-apocalyptic world, who comes across the same dead body twice, in the same place and state of decay, on two consecutive days. His foster-sister, who makes her living as an organ farm, is stolen away with their trailer into the sky. The Seattle they call home is just across the sound from New York Alki, a massive ongoing project to reconstruct the vanished Manhattan on Bainbridge Island. Add to this that Woo-jin keeps having what he calls ennui fits in which he hallucinates a desert mesa inhabited by a figure called the Last Dude, and you have a truly compelling - if weird - beginning to a story, full of questions which beg to be answered.

Unfortunately the book just gets stranger from there, and although questions do get answered, they're probably not the same ones you were asking.

The rest of the book jumps between various viewpoint characters, of mixed appeal. Woo-jin and his successor Abby, a specialist in 20th-century media who travels to the Lynch-ian Seaside Love Palace inhabited almost entirely by clones, are the best, while others, like Neethan F. (the F stands for 'Fucking') Jordan, a mono-dimensional and completely uncompelling critique of a Hollywood star, are not so fun. These are interspersed with Luke Piper's recollections his life in the 1980s and 90s as he follows his missing best friend into some kind of cult or conspiracy linked with the upcoming end of the world - the age of Fucked-Up Shit.

Part of the problem with listing elements of Blueprints of the Afterlife to give a flavour of what it's like, though, is that the novel steadfastly refuses to be the sum of its parts. The parts just don't come together like you might expect. Instead, they turn into something different and unique.

For example, despite the aforementioned organ farming and cloning, as well as 'Newman' robots and something called the bionet, all of which are key parts of the plot, it doesn't read at all like science fiction. Instead, other reviewers have compared Boudinot to post-modernists like Pynchon, Wallace, and Ballard (which seems apropos though I've not read any of their work *embarrassed*) as deadpan-surreal-satire. For example, there's a section of the book where Neethan Fucking Jordan is walking north from Hollywood to Seattle (yup), in which, among other absurd things, the following happens, out-of-the-blue:
Up ahead, hovering about eight feet above the carpet, glowed an incandescent heart about the size of three basketballs put together into a really big basketball. The heart thudded, bobbed a bit in the air, and radiated shimmery rays of light like one of those Mexican El Corazon tattoos. Neethan approached the glowing object and positioned himself beneath it, then jumped, his head getting swallowed momentarily in the hologram-like whatever-it-was. There was a noise, a pleasant chime in his ears, after which he understood that he had been granted an extra life.
Equally surreal is the nature of the Fucked-Up Shit which destroyed nine tenths of the human population. One character complains of having "survived three tsunamis and a plague of human-headed locusts."

It's the very frequency of these offhand reality-redefining moments that lend the book its amorphous nature and make it so difficult to assess, as the rug keeps getting pulled out from under you, forcing you to reevaluate what you're reading. Other reviewers have suggested that the book would benefit from re-reading, and there are more conventional narrative twists that kind of make me want to, but in the end - though I did enjoy it - I just didn't enjoy it enough. There were too many parts that were just silly or derivative, and trudging through these parts to the dollops of genius was an experience too off-putting to want to repeat in the near future.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Blueprints. Strong characters, some wickedly knowing writing, and some philosophical questions of the type raised by the best science fiction and speculative fiction - including that central question of when is an apocalypse not an apocalypse? what distinguishes dystopia from utopia and life from afterlife? - make this book worth reading and recommending. It just has its share of weak points too. Make sure you go into it with a willingness to be taken somewhere different to where you thought you were headed.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Blueprints of the Afterlife
Goodreads: Blueprints of the Afterlife