Nothing is Inflammable
By Simon Logan
Prime Books, 2006
Simon Logan burst onto the scene in 2001 with I-O, a small collection of what he termed "industrial fiction": speculative horror stories concerned with the excreta of modern and future society. They often take place in highly urbanized and worn-down areas, and effect a patina of rust, rot, and disuse, as if industrialization were a failed experiment and his characters are experiencing its aftermath. The stories in that collection leave a dirty and oily residue on the mind, and they often portray the cruelty and humanity of living in such an environment. My first impression upon reading them was to think of the industrial musical stylings of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, and Logan honestly cites this music as inspiration.
Five years later, and we are presented with Nothing is Inflammable, Logan's collection of "second-generation" industrial fiction. The book kicks off with Notes Towards the Design and Production of the Protohuman, a 45,000-word novella that takes up the entire first half of the book, and which could easily stand on its own. Dziga is a mecha-scientist running experiments in a subterranean laboratory, hoping in some way to bring about the next stage in human evolution. His subject is the Protohuman, a monstrous malformed creature that is under almost constant sedation and lives shackled to a wall of the lab. Also sharing this space is Judas, a caged monkey that has undergone experimentation as well.
Jakobsen is Dziga's patron, setting him up in his laboratory and dropping by occasionally to check on his progress. Dziga's only other visitor is his bacillophobic brother Dmitri, who resides in a plastic bubble like something Terry Gilliam would have designed, with wheezing pumps and dripping syringe needles. The majority of the narrative Dziga spends by himself, alone with his calculations and observations.
He narrates the story as if into a tape recorder at an autopsy, and it soon becomes clear that he not as mentally stable as he would lead the reader (or listener) to believe. Flashes of his childhood escape onto the page, in which it is revealed that at one point he was institutionalized, but so much of the tale is internal. We are drawn so far into Dziga's claustrophobic psyche that it's unclear how we can escape.
At its heart, Protohuman is a careful and studied descent into madness. Dziga believes he hears insects in the walls, or possibly listening devices (with the definition of "bug" serving double duty here), and knocks out a portion of the wall to find them. He becomes convinced that Jakobsen and Dmitri have teamed up and subjected him to an experiment of their own, and cannot get over the feeling of being watched all the time. At one point, the forces of Chaos, dressed in dark clothes, tattooed, heads shaven, kidnap Dziga and interrogate him about his work. Everything creeps, steadily, methodically, spiralling down to a point where Dziga cannot return, and we are dragged down with him, kicking and screaming to the end.
Not being able to trust one's own mind is a strong and primal fear, and Logan presents the effects of this mental condition with patient examination. It is regularly considered bad form for a reviewer to inject him- or herself into a review, but it cannot be escaped in this case. Protohuman disturbed and affected me more than I ever could have imagined. I've seen firsthand in others the external results of mental imbalance, and it frightens me to my core. After reading this novella, I needed to put the book aside for several months because of the power it had over my own fears.
The second half of the collection is a group of seven novelettes, each thematically linked to the aforementioned novella, but distinct and powerful in their own ways.
Ylena Dudjekovic is haunted by an electrical ghost in Devastation. Suffering from amnesia after a fall from a partially-constructed high-rise, she takes solace in the ministrations of Luca, the doctor who treats her and soon falls in love with her. As she recovers and goes back to work welding and riveting on the high steel, she soon starts to wonder if her fall was accidental or intentional. The electrical spectre shows up again and again, all the while pushing her toward the truth, a truth that Luca does not want her to know.
Pretty is narrated in jump-cut fashion by documentary filmmaker Elisabeth Afterlife. She has been hired to film a Beauty Queen and her participation in a series of perverse pageants held in back alleys and the nasty run-down areas of town. The Beauty Queen's handler, Raoul, forces her into his twisted ideal and exploits her for his own glory, as, it is soon made clear, he has done before with other girls. And all the while, Afterlife is recording, impotent behind the mechanical eye of her camera, desperate for the money that this job will bring her. It is a story of cruelty and desperation, but also justice of a sort. Logan's pointed observations reflect back on our current camera-happy culture: "[All] I'd ever seen is people so used to the sight of a lens that it failed to even register most of the time. People that see no difference between telling a camera something and telling a person something—see their own faces reflected in the lens and think they are talking to themselves as they reveal things they never normally would to even their closest friends" (183).
Fuck Punktown is by far the stand-out of the shorter pieces in this collection. A disjointed and nonlinear narrative, told by a man with no memory, a former Verio: part clone, part machine. Only he has been kidnapped, and operated upon, all to convert him to human, but he escapes partway through the procedure and flees to a junkyard where he meets Meaghan, his rescuer, his savior. Logan's use of repetition, in words, in phrases, in whole passages, produces the effect of an automaton, mindlessly doing the same work over and over, which brings to mind the factory job the narrator acquires. The revelations come fast and furious, and seem to confuse the issue further, but Logan's deft touch with language here leads the story to a satisfying and unexpected conclusion.
Keloid scars cover the skin of the two main characters in Her Love For Me is Oxyacetylene. A slight tale of being labeled an outsider, literally labeled in this case, as the narrator's apparent pariah-resulting crime has been carved into his forehead. He meets and connects with a woman also scarred against her will, and their decision on how to cope with their conditions is both poignant and extremely sad.
Elisabeth Afterlife is Dead is told by the narrator of Pretty(who also appears in Logan's upcoming novel Pretty Little Things to Fill Up the Void), but delves more into Afterlife's own private life as she meets Emma Larsen, a woman boxer willing to let men beat her up for only fifty dollars. "This isn't about sex," Emma explains, "you have to get away from the idea that the only true stimulus is sexual. This is different. There are all these holes inside us and if you can't fill one of them, then maybe you just have to move on and try filling another" (238). Afterlife's connection with Larsen, which soon blossoms into a sexual relationship, begins to influence her ability to film the brutal fights, and the reasoning behind Larsen's decision to take such bodily punishment is a bitter and tragic fact to swallow.
Rage Against the Machines is a hallucinogenic bullet train of a story. Katja (star of Logan's industrial crime thriller Katja From the Punk Band) gets the gig of vocalist and rhythm guitarist for The Stumps, an anarchic and nihilistic punk band playing shows for outcasts and outsiders, while trying to outrun the Policie who rule with military authority. This is complicated by Travis, the band's schizophrenic drummer, convinced that the Policie are Lovecraftian creatures from the deep who serve the construction cranes that will one day detach themselves from their rusted metal moorings and devour everyone in their paths. The attention to the details of psychosis echo Dziga's descent in Protohuman, told in Travis' first-person viewpoint, but these are countered by Katja's real-life observations, so that the reader is not pulled completely down with Travis, although Katja has had mental problems of her own in the past, and it's unclear whether scraps of what Travis reveals reside in his mind or are actually happening.
Emotion Sickness contains echoes of Logan's previous story Ignition, in which two co-dependent dysfunctional murderers befriend each other (in a manner) and eventually become each other's worst enemies. Vanya's method is poisons and toxic chemicals; Wiktor's is charismatic persuasion that leads to suicide. Both play with their prey, the cruelest of cats, hoping that each kill will spark something in their own lives. The conclusion can only be inexorable between two serial killers such as these, but the intensity, the back-and-forth, payback piled upon payback, catapults the reader there.
There is no question that this is a dark and depressing collection. Often, the sentiment is that death is the only option, that life is too cruel and unkind to be endured, although this nihilism does not completely overwhelm the book. However, it is a lot to take all at once. The break taken between the first and second halves of the book was necessary in my case, and this is a testament to the power of Logan's prose.
Logan has also structured the book in some unorthodox ways. The first is the decision to place the long piece in the book at the beginning instead of at the end. Many (but not all) story collections build to the end, placing shorter pieces on the front end, building inertia and momentum so that the final piece feels like the great meal after a series of appetizers; Nothing is Inflammable places the meal first, with the effect of filling up the mind, and so one is not as inclined to try the smaller courses afterward.
There is also the bold choice of character nomenclature; Logan's affection for Russian and Eastern European-sounding names produces a sense of otherness, almost as if we are reading a text that has been translated into English. Logan's lush and particular writing style reinforces this feeling, as well as his choice of literary content. His protagonists are all outsiders in one fashion or another, living and working on the fringes, and having a name like Dziga or Ylena or Wiktor or Elisabeth Afterlife is a painterly touch in enhancing this sense of otherness.
Finally, his book title, Nothing is Inflammable, is an interesting one, and clearly signals a progression from his earlier work, in which fire was shown to be a purifying agent, an element of cleansing and rebirth. By stating up front that nothing is inflammable, he indicates the futility of that cleansing fire, that perhaps nihilism is not the answer, that the world is run down and broken and rusted, and that we in some way need to deal with it. Each of the stories in this collection showcases active characters, men and women and ghosts and clones who are always progressing toward something, may it be madness, redemption, security, or destruction.