by John Damien Sundman
Rosalita Associates, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, 2008
112 pp., $16.75
John Sundman's The Pains is a cross between 1984, a critique on Catholic clerical training, a satire on the Reagan Era, and an appeal to the reader to stop observing the world passively and start thinking for him- or herself. Sound complicated? In some sense it is like stepping through the looking glass, but Sundman makes his narrative easy enough to follow even if you find yourself scratching your head and asking, "What the hell is going on?" In fact, when you do, you won't be far off from the truth.
The story essentially encompasses the travails of two characters. The first is Norman Lux, who is studying for the priesthood. As the details are revealed of his faith and his study, we quickly realize we are in some sort of alternate universe. It's like ours in some ways, but there are important differences. Here they worship Fred Christ, who was hung and beheaded, but whose head somehow survived the ordeal. His followers wear a "noosifix" to show their reverence, but their numbers are dwindling. Truth be told, Norman is one of only a handful of people at the Saint Reinhold monastery of the Society of Fred. When we first meet him, Norman is in severe pain. Indeed, he believes he is suffering "the Pains," which is a sign of the coming of the Messiah. His superior, Father Hessberg, is skeptical, even as Fred's symptoms become more extreme and pronounced.
Meanwhile, over at the University of New Kent, Dr. Xristi Friedman, a professor of cryoneurology, is finding herself being forced by the Party to give up her teaching duties and her research. They want her to focus on the reanimation of the human heads contained in the school's "Chronos Collection." For Xristi—
Norman and Xristi are linked together by Horatio Norton, a man also known as the Eagle. Horatio had been Xristi's lover, a brilliant scientist whose work caused him to embrace the Society of Fred, and who was finally locked up as a madman and an undesirable. Added to this is the fact that one of the heads in the Chronos Collection is reputed to be that of Fred Christ himself. When it appears that that head is different from the others, Xristi has to wonder whether she should bring him back to the land of the living, assuming she could even do so. The fact that Fred's head already seems to be attempting to communicate with her only makes the challenge more difficult.
As the narrative unfolds it becomes obvious that both of these characters are trapped in authoritarian "Freemerica," where much lip service is given to the notion of freedom, but little is actually offered. It's a world in which Ronald Reagan is the Minister of Awareness and Oliver North serves as Minister of National Well-Being. There's an obese TV personality who leads the public in an Orwellian "Two Minute Hate," which the Freemerican viewers simultaneously treat both ironically and seriously. Clearly this is a repressive dystopia, but just as clearly this is one where the dictators are only occasionally efficient. They're very good at propaganda (as with the renaming of their prisons as "Changes!" as if it were a health spa) but not so good at keeping a lid on dissent. What is the role of the individual in the face of such repression?
That seems to be Sundman's real point. As we travel through his surreal Freemerica, some of the things we encounter are familiar and some are fanciful, but the goal is to make us think about how much of this connects to our real world. While the mundane audience looks to science fiction to predict the future, what the genre really does best is comment on the present. Sundman is not subtle in depicting a vapid world driven by media images, politicians and self-serving religious leaders, but neither is he off the mark. When troops arrive at a singles bar ready to help the patrons "volunteer" for service, it is an unexpectedly chilling moment. Just how voluntary is our current "all-volunteer" military anyway?
Likewise he is eager to skewer religious leaders who focus more on maintaining their own power than contemplating the tenets of their faith. As Norman begins literally falling apart, his superiors are ready to place a much higher value in clamping down on any unsettling questions raised by Norman, especially any that might undermine their own authority. One need only think of the recently concluded Bush Era, which celebrated bringing "democracy" and "freedom" to Iraq while doing whatever it could to suppress it at home.
The book comes with illustrations by one Cheeseburger Brown, which adds to the surreal atmosphere of the proceedings. They serve to keep our focus on the dark and demented, as when Norman contemplates the supposed end to his celibate studies—
The Pains is a fast read, but Sundman doesn't let the reader off easily at the end. While resolving the various plot points, he takes the issues the characters have been facing and throws them in our faces. What is the solution to the crises we face? Is it to rely on the expertise of scientists and others, which has failed us so often? Is it to have faith in religious leaders who have proven equally unreliable? Is it to find our own paths, combining or reintegrating the two in new ways? Sundman doesn't pretend to give us the answers. He's only here to ask the questions...and make us squirm a bit while he's doing so.
(The Pains is available in trade paperback, for download on Kindle, and may be read for free online, although donations are requested.)