Set in the poignant urban blight of a near-future New York, Bleak History follows the soulful and brooding Gabriel Bleak on a classic hero's journey. Which is to say, against his will, to the hidden source of his mounting affliction.
In the early years of the Cheney administration, my neighbor's house burned to the ground; and in her grieving give-aways, I inherited an unscathed copy of John Shirley's Really Really Really Really Weird Stories. I hadn't known my neighbor well, and I had obviously never been a huge reader of whatever exactly it was that Shirley was writing. So, it wasn't for another six months that I cracked the first page of the book, a story collection so creatively explosive, trembling with unashamed poetic license, that it become almost a talisman to me, a Yes from the Cosmos, a direction to an aspiring story-teller.
The most remarkable thing about that collection, perhaps, was that each of its four sections, did, as promised, get progressively weirder. And the first story, in which a street-walker in San Francisco answers a marriage ad from a Mexican B-actor who bills himself as the world's smallest man, was already weird enough. Charlie Manson only wishes he had the mental powers of the trailer park psychotics that lash out at Shirley's cold doctors and stuffy bureaucrats. The Virgin Mary only wishes that she could be revivified from the homely rubber of an ordinary beach ball.
Though his stories are grittier, more carnal, and far more menacing, Shirley's collection brought to mind a master from a different time. Shirley works with his post-punk urban decay, the aftermath of Reaganomics, in much the same way that Alfred Bester had worked with his epochally charged up-scale Madison Avenue of the 1950s, namely, picking it up like a snow globe with a city inside, shaking it up a few times, and letting it settle into his brilliant space-stories. Like Alfred Bester, Shirley struck me as a literary southpaw, a natural born story-teller, whose strong imagination defied the myriad rules of thumb that burden other authors. Faithful only to the caged beast that wants to burst out of each story, their work unfolds exactly the way you'd want it to unfold, passionate, unpredictable, uncannily true, and often funny enough that you stupidly try to retell the story at parties.
Much of what I've always loved about John Shirley pours out of his new novel, Bleak History.
In hero Gabriel Bleak, Shirley draws a fine portrait of a scruffy outsider who earns his living on the margins of society, as a bounty hunter, and of a young man whose psychic wounds go much deeper than his gory bad memories as a reluctant soldier in Afghanistan.
The hunter himself, we soon learn, is being hunted by a splinter group of American intelligence. In mercenary fashion, the CCA would like to "contain" Bleak's talents, and use them in a secret war against the nebulous Enemy. They've been watching him since birth, and in some ways, know more than Bleak about the source of his psychic gifts, which include the knowledge of when he is being observed, an ability to speak with ghosts, and the power to condense the energy of "the Hidden" into fireballs and ladders.
Shirley is ever the master of twining plots, each with their own energy, that come at each other with the inevitability of runaway trains.
In Bleak History, we are treated to a parapolitical story of the CCA, whose methods of keeping America safe go as far as kidnapping "talented" children, including Bleak's own brother, and keeping them in an adolescent (and emotionally larval) state. Halfway through the book, this plot line rams right into the compelling story of Troy Gulcher, a scuzzy crook who calls upon an old dark entity called Moloch. These two stories then intersect with a fictional piece of historical metaphysics, in which Sir Isaac Newton and a group of luminaries attempt to spare the world from another grueling Dark Age with the help of an extremely ancient bit of technology left deep inside the ice at the Magnetic North Pole. Into this mix, Shirley threads the story of the mystically perfect love which has, so far, skirted Gabriel Bleak, and a plot line in which Moloch, through the use of his human puppets, prepares to take over the world.
As these various plots thicken, each of the Faustian puppet masters find themselves the unwitting puppets. One by one, Gulcher and the others experience reversals of fate, until even the power mad general Forsythe, who is using the CCA, and these magical entities, lies in the dirt, babbling, impotently bemoaning what he's done.
What is so enjoyable about Bleak History, however, more than its head-strong plotting, more than all the spectacular and baroque metaphysics, is the way the author depicts the levels of human cruelty. I suppose the same could be said of Dante Alighieri. In any case, both authors show a loving touch in their canny portraits of morally repulsive men and women of their times. And both lay out a very pleasant variety of the faces one finds within every rotting institution, with its colorful monsters and gentleman failures.
While I consider this novel, in many ways, a work of genius, I did get a sense, at times, that the author himself was not exactly aware of where his unique strength lies. In many places, Bleak History moves on the page a bit like an action movie, where one can see every kick and grimace and plume of dust. Don't get me wrong. I heartily enjoy the exquisite shadenfreude that only Shirley evokes. But for me, the visceral effect was diluted by what came across as a readying of the story for another medium. Bleak History was strongest in those places, mostly in the little details, where the author gives himself to the madness of the story, and perhaps, to madness itself, and manages to bypass the kind of pre-thinking that can be harmful to the unscrupulous lifeblood of art.
What I love so much about Shirley's characters, at their best, is how they come off as such hilariously chipped tea cup specimens of humanity, so American, so horrible, so believable, and so very John Shirley. But in this book, I didn't detect that strong heartbeat. One can see what the characters in Bleak History are pointing towards. But I didn't feel them fully materialize, each as a world unto herself. Instead, the more authentically geisty dregs of humanity take a backseat, in this book, to a more accessible kind of oddball, who only really represents an oddball to that vast majority of normals. I feel as though it was well within John Shirley's reach, when he painted his gang of misfits (the so-called ShadowComm, who reluctantly accompany Gabriel Bleak) to add those few brushstrokes which would render them as something worthy of A Confederacy of Dunces, or A Feast of Snakes. It almost seems that some dark entity was exerting a force on the brilliant wordsmith, all along, so that his creations would instead come out as a better drawn bunch of X-Men.
On the other hand, perhaps the organic vitality of the characters suffers precisely because the book does so much. Bleak History takes the reader on a heady tour of demonology, love, crime, war, an intricate and homespun system of mysticism, the psychic surveillance state, unique variations on the Stockholm syndrome, the sorrows of every eternal misfit, and an apt critique of institutional thinking. There are plenty of thought-provoking tropes in the book, including self-enclosed realities the author calls pocket worlds, an autistic oracle, various ways a person might reach into another mind, and scientific explanations for Magic and the Occult. And like so much of Shirley's work, beneath the twisted story, the reader is treated to a Matryoshka series of dolls within lying, paranoid dolls.