In Nick Mamatas' weird political cartoon of a novel, Under My Roof, a man named Daniel Weinberg decides to build his own nuclear bomb out of hundreds of used smoke detectors, and then declares that his house, and its yard, are an independent country named Weinbergia. The bomb, inside a garden gnome, provides the ultimate deterrent thanks to a TV remote control detonator. Meanwhile, Daniel's pubescent son Herbert is a telepath who can read the thoughts of anyone, anywhere. If that sounds like the setup for an extended skit, with social commentary, you're not far wrong. But the whole thing comes together in a surprising, and rewarding, way. Click through for details (and spoilers.)
We get various hints that things have already gone super-dystopian by the time Under My Roof starts: economic collapse has created a whole bunch of newly minted poor people who compete with Daniel Weinberg as he's scavenging smoke-detectors from the landfill. The United States is now at war with 40 different countries all over the world, and everything's sort of teetering on the brink of social collapse.
After Weinbergia declares itself to be an independent country, things get quite silly, with tons of other microstates springing up all over the U.S. — some of them as small as one person's skirt, some of them the size of a whole town. Meanwhile, our telepathic young narrator, Herb Weinberg, finds himself surrounded by more and more insanity as pretty much every adult character acts like a maniac. And thanks to Herb's telepathy, we get a privileged view of quite how random and id-driven most of these people are.
At one point, I thought Under My Roof was just aiming to be a kind of goofy political satire — and there's nothing wrong with that, especially when real life politics is getting goofier all the time. But then in the last chunk of the book, things came together in a way that suddenly felt a lot more purposeful. Without giving too much away, the book's two strands — Daniel's house seceding from the U.S., and Herb's telepathy — suddenly intersect and make sense as parts of the same book.
Most of all, Daniel's mind-reading becomes a way in to see how much everybody is faking it, all the time. In one great passage, he flashes back to a time when his kindergarten teacher was having trouble controlling all her kids and "decided to put a scare into us":
She spotted a man in the window of a creaky old building with one of htose haunted house porches, he was a handyman who was fixing the place up a bit to sell, and pointed to him and said, "Behave, or that man'll get you!" and obligingly the man raised his arms, a long screwdriver in his right hand, and howled like an animal. They didn't know each other, it wasn't a plan. It was just two grown-ups acting in solidarity, because they know how important it is to keep kids terrified and obedient.
That's part of the bit where the book suddenly clicked for me. I finally got the over-arching theme Mamatas was going for, which is that it's all fictional: parenthood, nationhood, and authority of all kinds. It's all just a fiction created to keep people in line, and there's nothing stopping us from creating our own ad-hoc versions, no matter how ridiculous or bizarre.
Under My Roof is getting reissued soon by Soft Skull/Counterpoint Press, and it's a very quick read at 40,000 words. Check it out.