Blueprints of the Afterlife

In 1989, the science fiction author Bruce Sterling codified a literary phenomenon that had been bubbling under, generally unobserved. He fastened on certain intermittent, unpredictable eruptions of fiction that blended highbrow mainstream literary virtues and techniques with the lowbrow tropes and tools of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to produce an odd kind of narrative whose most notable effect was cognitive estrangement, overlaying the familiar world with a patina of weirdness. He dubbed the new form “slipstream,” deeming it the defining mode for the postmodern landscape of the late twentieth century.

In the subsequent two decades, slipstream fiction has been relentlessly parsed, hailed, and reviled, with a nascent canon forming and conferences dedicated to the study of the mode. A handy guide to the whole checkered history is Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, assembled by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel.

Nowadays, the notion that authors raised and marketed outside the genre sandbox might like to play with the genre’s toys, with mixed results, is so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable. When the various lists compiling the best novels of 2011 feature such writers as Karen Russell, Tom Perrotta, Lev Grossman, Haruki Murakami, Patrick DeWitt, and Téa Obreht, the triumph — or at least, partial grudging acceptance — of slipstream fiction seems undeniable.

Born in 1972, Ryan Boudinot is young enough to have grown up with slipstream as his mother’s milk. He’s a second- or even third-generation slipstreamer himself, and it’s interesting to see how easily the mode fits him, how natural and unstrained his splicing of mimetic with surreal and science-fictional feels. His work illustrates the dictum that to channel the zeitgeist accurately, you need to go pretty much round the bend of sanity, logic, and good taste.

Half the stories in Boudinot’s first book, The Littlest Hitler, chronicle the omnipresent consumerist, media-saturated landscape we all inhabit, but with weirdness parameters dialed up to eleven. The title piece recounts the misfortunes befalling a lad who decides to dress up as the Führer for Halloween. “On Sex and Relationships” might be an Edward Albee play for our new century’s more exotic debaucheries. In “Bee Beard,” a passive-aggressive office manager starts a new trend of live facial appurtenances. “Blood Relatives” is a diptych involving suburban cannibalism and serial killing. “Drugs and Toys” involves a drugstore owner who intrudes into the lives of his customers in disturbing Orwellian fashion. And “The Flautist” is cousin to William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. The masterpiece in this vein is “So Little Time,” which limns the junk-culture life of three adolescents. It reads like Harold and Kumar’s adaptation of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, or a Beavis-and-Butt-head attempt to summarize a Jonathan Lethem story they had skimmed while high on caffeine and sugar.

But a different quartet points to a fuller fusion of disparate storytelling modes. “Contaminant” involves zombie workers in a frozen-pea factory. “Civilization” details, Robert Sheckley-style, a future when parenticide is a state mandate. Taking on Shirley Jackson’s classic “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” about demiurgic forces of good and evil loose in the world, “The Sales Team” posits a world where salesmanship has become a pointless engine of anarchic destruction. Finally, most effectively, “Written by Machines” is William Gibson out of Douglas Coupland, involving computer geniuses, rogue software and office anomie.

Boudinot’s style is light, breezy, and colloquial, hiding much craft and thought behind its addictive surface. He’s adept at first-person narratives where the idiosyncratic voice of the protagonist is hypnotically perfect. And despite inhabiting wastelands of terror, decay, authoritarianism, and aimlessness, his characters exhibit a manic, adaptive élan vital.

Boudinot plainly sensed further potential in his masterstroke of “So Little Time,” for he returns to that venue, tone, and subject matter — with a twist — in his first novel, Misconception. In fact, the book forms part of the same continuity: Dick Dills is the narrator of the earlier short tale, and he’s name-checked as an acquaintance of our new protagonist, Cedar Rivers.

Misconception opens with a similar first-person narrative by teenage Cedar, a bright, disaffected lad mired in the early-1980s cultural swamp. Cedar finds a soulmate in the equally offbeat Kat Daniels, and  their halting, awkward love affair takes them across strange and painful terrain, before disintegrating in a tragedy of Cedar’s making.

But we do not get all this straightforwardly, for Boudinot has cleverly imposed a labyrinthine schematic on his novel which mirrors the slippery treachery of all memories. At the end of the first section we cut startlingly to the present, when an adult Cedar and Kat are having a reunion for the first time since their adolescence. Cedar is a doctor, Kat a writer. (Her books even receive nice blurbs from one “Ryan Boudinot.”)  And she has contacted her old boyfriend through Facebook to show him her memoir of their youth, the first part of which we now realize we have just read. Kat has recreated Cedar’s youthful self as a persona through which to relate still-painful history. Cedar at first objects, taking umbrage at this usurpation of his identity and voice, finding inconsistencies in the text. But, continuing to read, he is drawn into the organically perfect feel of the memoir, as are we. Alternate sections are in Kat’s voice, and even her mother’s.

Boudinot’s tone and angle of attack recall nothing so much as the graphic novels of Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge. The Pacific Northwest setting particularly evokes the Buddy Bradley saga. The meticulous visual specificity, the defensive irony that masks pain, the wry melancholy, the shallow, pop-culture-laden wordliness of the characters, the screwed-up white-trash lives — it all cries out for rendering in nine panels per page. But this is not to slight Boudinot’s accomplishments as a prose writer, merely to identify a generational alliance. He inhabits his characters as only a traditional novelist can, conducting us through their misery and uncertainty from the inside out, simultaneously depicting life as absurd and ineffable.

With his new book, Blueprints of the Afterlife, Boudinot takes this finely wrought but perhaps thematically underpowered mimetic-absurdist vehicle and drops in a rocket-powered speculative engine. If Misconception took off from “So Little Time,” Blueprints launches hypersonically from  “Written by Machines.”

The bulk of the novel unfolds about a century from now, in a postapocalyptic future barely emerging from an interregnum called the Age of Fucked Up Shit. We will witness at several removes, in the form of interview transcripts with one Luke Piper, the birth of FUS, an enigmatic era whose full meaning and dimensions Boudinot sternly and bravely refuses to fully resolve. With its leitmotif of “superposition,” the physics riff most familiar from the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, this novel pinwheels out multivalent explanations for almost everything, demanding that the reader navigate his or her own best-determined path of causality through the sly and shifting narrative.

But do not take that to mean that Blueprints of the Afterlife is an impenetrable nest of hypertext. Far from it. Its linear propulsion, studded with bravura set pieces, is compulsively readable in the manner of any consumer-friendly epic fantasy novel, overstuffed with unforgettable freakish characters (in the Age of FUS, freakish is the new normal); laugh-out-loud or cringe-worthy incidents; and rafts of genuinely innovative scientific, spiritual, and philosophical speculations delivered in sleek and colorful prose.

The bulk of the book takes place in Boudinot’s patented stomping grounds, the Pacific Northwest: Portland, Seattle, and environs. But because the planet has undergone a welter of wars, plagues, industrial catastrophes, eco-collapses (including a sentient migrating killer glacier named Malaspina), and robot (or “newman”) revolts, resulting in a depopulated globe (eighty percent of the nine billion humans have died) strewn with odd and dangerous detritus (“the granularity of byproducts”), the Pacific Northwest of the novel is hardly our own. Cue slipstream’s strange flavors.

For one thing, this post-scarcity society is reconstructing the glories of vanished Manhattan on Washington’s Bainbridge Island. The builders are using a pre-FUS digital scan: “involving some really far-out software and a butt-load of satellites, [it] had been performed under quasilegal circumstances by a company called Argus Industries, who’d intended to replicate New York City for a full-immersion gaming environment.” But not content with mere infrastructure, the creators are populating the simulacrum with volunteers whose personalities are overlaid with those of the original dead inhabitants, so that one of our heroines, Abby Fogg, sinks dangerously down into the life of Sylvie Yarrow, book company editor. As this occurs late in the book, after we have become ensorcelled by Boudinot’s visionary telling, we are able to see our twenty-first-century New York as the strangest venue of all. Chalk up another slipstream victory.

Mention here of Abby Fogg, an expert data retrievalist forced to barter with a lunatic aged pop star called Kylee Asparagus and her 600 cloned consorts, allows me to belatedly trot out some of the rest of the cast, whose tribulations structure the telling.

We have Woo-jin, simpleton Zen master of the art of dishwashing, who lives with his stepsister Patsy, a mammothly obese woman who rents her body out as a spare parts factory.

There’s Al Skinner, elderly retired Boeing-employed soldier of the Newman Wars, intent on avenging his dead family.

Abby Fogg’s boyfriend Rocco is a Bionet hacker. Given that every privileged human is threaded with medical software and implants, it’s possible to tap into an individual’s telemetry and gain control of the body’s functions.

Let us not forget Neethan F. Jordan, a Schwarzenegger-style media star who suddenly finds himself sent on a humbling vision quest.

And Luke Piper, our contemporary, emerges as a likable Everyman through whom the vast paradigm shift is channeled.

But this small list does not even mention the Last Dude, a shaman at the end of time; the Ambassador, ET’s representative on Earth; Dirk Bickle, recruiter for the Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential; and dozens of other misfits and eccentrics.

Blueprints of the Afterlife exists in a shining lineage that extends right back ultimately to William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the novel that taught us all how to conflate esoteric conspiracy theory with history with lowbrow pop culture with surrealism and absurdity with transgressive assaults on propriety and the bourgeoisie. (Boudinot’s portrayal of sexual matters is heavily porno-fied, in a knowing manner that dissects the sleaze without completely killing it.)  Everyone working in this mode, from Thomas Pynchon to Ishmael Reed, from Robert Anton Wilson to Douglas Rushkoff, from Will Self to Matt Ruff, is a scion of Ol’ Bill Lee, the exterminator of certainty and security.

A parallel strain in Boudinot’s novel, deriving from a Founding Father slightly antedating Burroughs, is the Phildickian one. As you might have guessed from the description of the Manhattan simulacrum, Boudinot is intimately concerned with what makes a human, and how falsity and inauthenticity are introduced or invited into our lives. Certainly the keenest example of this is the perversion that Rocco and others indulge in: hijacking other people and running them like automatons from scripts. It’s Dick’s ultimate nightmare of human-into-android. As well, the various manifestations of the Last Dude which the characters encounter read like passages straight out of Dick’s own Exegesis.

Boudinot’s novel, with near-Neal Stephensonian intricacy and panache, is a brave attempt to forecast the “afterlife” subsequent to our culture’s imminent, nigh-inevitable collapse. Yet it’s no preachy tract, but rather a glorious carnival of errors, terrors, and numinous possibilities. Boudinot’s approach is that of boy genius Nick Fedderly, who says to Luke Piper — after he’s shot him with a living bullet that forcibly installs the beta version of Bionet into Luke’s body — “I’m not asking you to believe me right now. I’m asking you to come with me and discover what it is you truly believe.”