An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil
by Jim Munroe
No Media Kings, $14
Sometimes you don't know whether to root for a writer or boot him in the head. Take Jim Munroe, a Toronto leftist and culture jammer who just released his fourth novel, An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil. I was charmed by his first three books. All were extremely soft sci-fi novels, but what they lacked in hard science they made up for with realistic characters, pointed social commentary, and compelling tales of the search for geek romance in a fucked-up corporate universe. And though I can't help but cringe when an entertaining writer consciously shoves his politics into the foreground of his fiction, one advantage of the fantastic and speculative genres is that their epic scale and skewed realities can make an author's sweeping statements about civilization feel natural. Sci-fi fans can enjoy wrapping their brains around different writers' worldviews--and Munroe's a pleasure compared to, say, the infamous individualist Heinlein. Or has been till now.
Munroe's first novel, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, paired his flair for describing the mating dances of nerds with some clever ass kicking: his cute pair of worker-bee lovers discovered they had superpowers and set out to mess with their overlords. It made a quiet but not shabby debut on HarperCollins in 1999, but Munroe, who'd wandered into fiction writing after publishing a zine for several years, never really got comfortable as "Cultural Production Employee XKJ93" in Rupert Murdoch's vast multimedia empire. Instead, he used his agitprop Web site, NoMediaKings.org, to launch his own imprint and in 2000 released his second book, Angry Young Spaceman, in which an earth kid figures out how to enjoy transgressive interspecies nookie with a gelatinous beauty from an underwater planet.
His third novel, the dystopian Everyone in Silico (2002), was close to a knockout. It still featured a share of Munroe's trademark beta-leftist romance, but it did a much better job of selling his politics than did his other work. The world he created--where indentured servitude is an unspoken reality, where it'll cost you a bundle to stop hallucinating product mascots at random intervals, where people sell their own bodies into slavery so they can be immersed in virtual reality--was a believable extrapolation from current conditions, a good old-fashioned sci-fi warning against disaster. It looked like Munroe was hitting his stride, and I was really looking forward to An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil.
But I got a bad feeling in my gut when the review copy arrived with a press kit describing the novel's gimmick: it's a new kind of epistolary, narrated via one of them blogs the kids are crazy about.
His heroine, an average Jane named Kate, starts the blog after she walks in on her enviably gorgeous roommate, Lilith, and catches her in the middle of a weird if beautiful ritual. Lilith, it turns out, is a demon worshipper--or possibly a real live demon--and she's disemboweling a homemade videotape given to her by a lovesick suitor. At first Kate assumes that shit is going to get scary, but Lilith turns out to have a heart of gold--she's destroying the tape not to hurt the boy but to cure him of his crush. Kate is rather touched, despite her own crush on the boy in question, and she encourages Lilith to capitalize on the aesthetic appeal of the ritual, which involves different props each time--from graceful strings of melted videotape to drops of blood--but always includes some otherworldly singing.
Together they turn the ritual religious practice into a traveling stage show, and from there the book turns into an indie road novel, drawing no doubt on Munroe's experience running the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, the No Media Kings-sponsored writers' caravan that tours Canadian and U.S. cities. We follow the pair as Kate talks Lilith into going public, becomes her manager, develops a line of merch, and sets up some gigs opening for indie bands full of cute boys. Meanwhile, her chronicle at roommatefromhell.com wins Kate her own clique of fans and, needless to say, both ladies find lurve along the path to cult fame.
Munroe launched the work by giving thrifty readers the option of reading each entry for free online as it appeared on a fake blog (yup, roommatefromhell.com); the full text was available by the time the bound copy hit the market. New narrative tactics are always welcome, and I'm glad somebody's running with this one, but I wish it weren't Munroe. The diaristic writing, the warm and fuzzy feeling generated by "interactive" semicreative activities like blogging, and the subsequent temptation to navel gaze could only have hurt a writer like Munroe, who under the best of circumstances can barely achieve the scope he needs to keep his ideological agenda from getting on the reader's tits. Lilith's odd-couple romance with a guy who turns out to be a real-life angel is an interesting metaphysical conceit, but it isn't enough to keep this tale afloat.
In his first three books, Munroe's characters were out to save the world, or at least explore the universe. But in Opening Act, their goal appears to be self-fulfillment through initiation into a group of ostentatiously right-thinking, self-obsessed artistes. Not to knock the process of getting one's shit and soul together, but Munroe's patented blend of folksy writing and missionary zeal works only when his everydork characters are, you know, on a mission. Here he just sounds smug as fuck, his belief system reduced to code for "I'm cool, are you?"
At one point a walk-on character lights up in front of Kate, and the novel's action grinds to a halt for her to deliver a thought-bubble PSA on the evils of smoking. At another, we pause for a look at the really cool crash pad that a sort of indie-rock commune maintains for fellow travelers. Through it all, the narrator remains smugly self-conscious, keeping a safely ironic distance from any real meaning. Says Kate, when she fails to make another character laugh, "C'mon! It's one of the best lines so far this tour!"
The book does retain one of sci-fi's major strengths: its power to entertain. But this isn't thanks to the form so much as to the fact that Munroe's just a damn good writer--he kept me turning the pages, but the minute I finished, my inner Florence King, foaming at her misanthropic mouth, insisted we take a long, hot shower. The book lacks what makes sci-fi great: the ability to stimulate the intellect while putting on a show. The only thoughts Opening Act provoked in me were "OK, now I'm totally convinced that the arts are getting way too cliquey for their own good," and "Maybe it's not such a good idea for writers to try to be rock stars instead of concentrating on writing." If those are the points Munroe wanted to make, good on him. But in the context of all that preaching to the progressive choir, I doubt it.