Nick Harkaway's Tigermanis a funny, original and very human novel about a man who puts on a costume and rights wrongs. It's also an echt superhero novel - it gives us a new take on superheroics, different from either superhero comics or films, by showing them through the lens of literary prose.
All the familiar tropes — the origin, the donning of the costume, the heroic fisticuffs, feel different in a novel, where you can delve so easily into memories, thoughts, detailed descriptions of the rough texture to life.
Cast in literary prose, the bodies of superheroes aren't graphical elements, we inhabit them — we're made acutely aware of their being older bodies, lived-in bodies, bodies touched by injury and fatigue and petty inconveniences.
Tigerman jumps right into this experiment. It's the story of Lester Ferris, a British sergeant and veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, now nearing forty and rusticating as the UK's sole diplomatic representative to the island nation of Mancreu somewhere in the Arabian Sea. It's a sleepy former colony now about to be evacuated due to a slightly magical-realist environmental disaster. Offshore, criminals and sketchy government types take advantage of its hazy legal status.
Lester is a sleepy sort himself, who is roused to action when a friend is gunned down; he begins pulling at the threads of the underworld, looking for answers. His best friend is a precocious enigmatic teenage boy, a self-taught steeped in superhero comics and Internet culture. When they feel the need to seek justice beyond what the law provides, there can be but one answer.
So what does a superhero look like in Tigerman?
To begin with, it's superhero narrative transplanted from the American metropolis and into seedy, 21st-century international waters. No powers here, just a middle-aged man dressed up like a tiger to intervene in a shady world of factions and expediency.
Lester knows what superheroes are from the comics, so he knows he's imitating them and doing it on purpose. He's righteously angry but he's also self-consciously creating public theater, a hoax, as well as a venting of righteous anger, a method of seizing justice that can't be claimed any other way. And to spread terror among the criminal underclass, a cowardly and superstitious lot.
So he's enacting a genre whose rules he knows, his self-consciousness aided and abetted by his teen sidekick — sometimes called "Robin," in a gesture which Lester himself doesn't quite know how to take. The boy's knowledge of comics is decidedly up-to-date and post-Watchmen, and he brings the Sergeant's hazy Silver Age comics savvy up to date.
As superhero origin stories go, it makes almost too much sense. It's like a "prank," a "lesson" a "statement"; none of the impacted primal-scene neurosis of a Batman or a Spiderman, more like a two-fisted Banksy. He studies and appropriates superhero comics as a how-to manual. And this is a matter of taste, and perhaps a matter of necessity — it would strain credulity for a 21st century British sergeant to don a mask and utility belt without at least the hint of self-reflexive shrug. It's one of the things a novel can give us, that closely anatomized consciousness.
I was disappointed by it but it made more sense on re-read, that we were seeing fracture lines appear in an aging, rootless, childless man's life of dreamy complacence. Setting up a second identity inevitably calls into question what the original one was in the first place — "He glanced at himself in the mirror. In character. When had he started thinking of Lester Ferris as a role to inhabit?"
I mentioned "literary prose" above, and in my opinion Harkaway can really do it. One of those writers covers who is relaxed, digressive and playful on the page from the opening sentence onward: "On the steps of the old mission house, the Sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican." His prose seems to parse the tiny moments of human awareness with a keen, sympathetic vision, in throwaway phrasings like "He tumbled down into himself, brooding" or "he advanced, slowly, as if probing for mines with his voice."
And it's reliably comic without being flip or facile. Ferris harbors a crush on the local doctor and after a night of costumed derring-do he wanders past her house and lingers a moment at her gate before coming to his senses: "he knew after nearly forty years on Earth that when you showed up at a woman's door in the middle of the night smelling of blood and diesel and river mud, she did not immediately lose track of her underwear, or even her common sense."
That said, one of its flaws is that, the Sergeant Ferris in his double life is much more fully realized person than anyone in his supporting cast — the foxy Japanese scientist, the hearty American, the surly Russian gangsters. Crucially, the boy's patchwork idiolect of ephemeral Internet memes didn't carry his key scenes for me. I couldn't read the moments of shock or daring or affection I needed to there. He seemed more like a stand-in for the book's consciousness of genre by calling out the tropes as they come, and his comic book shout-outs feel a bit off, as if he has Harkaway's tastes rather than his own. The late-book revelations that follow don't land for me - they lack the heft of a real psychology behind them.
(This may be the point to note that there is overall a post-colonial queasiness to the book, with its generic island culture, its people "an unbothered ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian" and a lone white man's intervention in the problems of an exotic paradise — one of the few sets of genre tropes Tigerman doesn't seem to be self-conscious about.)
As a regular reader of superheroics, my antennae went up most keenly during the action set-pieces. My gut told me this was where the questions about what a superhero-in-the-real-world get answered. Lester Ferris is a large man and an expert brawler, fit for his age and disposition, with uncanny tactical awareness and instincts. I loved the sensory world of Lester's battered but able fighting physique. His knees give a twinge as he dives to safety his knees protest "but protesting in a willing way: fuck, yes, but don't make a habit of it."
Lester's memories of military action in Afghanistan give full weight to combat's arbitrary cruelty and black humor — a commanding officer and prolific reader is killed when Taliban fighters tracked the signal from his e-reader. There are moments of real shock and poignancy — early in the book he witness a brutal execution and can't help but shout the word "Stop": "People said it to bombs and hurricanes and tsunamis and wildfires. The Sergeant had seen video footage, in 2001, of a woman standing on the street bellowing it at the Twin Towers. It never made any difference, and no one expected it to. It was the soul's voice, in hell."
But then — and this feels key to me — the rules of the fictional world change when the costume goes on: action movie conventions apply. Bullets strike only armor plate, enemies are panicked and unaware, the right gadget is always to hand; an explosion carries him through the air to safety. I'm conscious of this being more a personal hobbyhorse than a critical truth but I felt these moments as a pervasive incoherence in the book, its indecision about how arbitrary chance and violence meet, which feels like an indecision about how superheroes and novels meet. Prose fiction should interrogate the superhero, and Lester is as real a middle-aged man as novels give us but when he dons the mask Harkaway lets him off the hook.
But let's be clear: these are my own investments and obsessions around these questions, not those of other people. Tigerman is massively pleasurable read and re-read, and rewards all the attention you can give it. And it tells us the superhero is not done; it's different from any treatment of the superhero before it, asks different questions and finds different answers.