Dreaming in Laughter: New Comic Fantasy

TheRegionalOffice CROP

How come fantasy gets to laugh, while its speculative fiction cousin has to wear a straight face? The authorities insist that this needn’t be true: “There is a false belief,” says the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “that SF and humor do not mix.” That may be so, but a quick look over at the companion entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, reveals a very different sense of a natural fit: “The traditions of humor, Parody and Satire in fantastic writing are very ancient . . . predating the emergence of anything resembling Genre Fantasy . . . ”

So right away we see the need to dispel an impression or folk belief in science fiction’s reputation for unremitting sobriety, while on the other hand fantasy is deemed to have fostered comedy from its earliest, premodern days.

The antithetical reputations of the two genres probably stem from the perceived guiding hand of science itself. Deemed to be a serious discipline with an emphasis on hard facts and sharp lines of distinction, science, however unjustly, does not seem like a welcoming home to comedy — despite occasional lighthearted moments such as the annual Ig Nobel Prizes. Additionally, science is a minority practice, the public not being privy to its secret inner workings. Whereas the familiar, everyday practice of daydreaming, of indulging surreal visions and whimsies even when uncommitted to paper, readily informs the average person that comedy and fantasy often go hand-in-hand.

It’s possible, of course, to come up with famous instances of comic SF and equally famous examples of comic fantasy. But I suspect that for every Dimension of Miracles (Robert Sheckley) or Bill, the Galactic Hero (Harry Harrison) the average reader will remember a half-dozen books along the lines of Topper (Thorne Smith) or any of the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, or Tom Holt’s many productions, with each man being a cottage industry in lighthearted fantastika.

However the competition is decided, we have before us today two comic fantasy novels that uphold their tradition admirably and demonstrate that the sleep of reason does not always breed monsters but also, quite often, clowns.

The comedy in Manuel Gonzales’s The Regional Office Is Under Attack! — his first novel, after an acclaimed short-story collection debut — is of a dark, surreal, absurdist kind, rather than providing a bucketful of slapstick and belly laughs, with structure and effects reminiscent of Max Barry’s Lexicon.

Deep underground in Manhattan, beneath an innocuous travel agency, lies the HQ of the Regional Office, an organization whose drab name belies its exotic mission: “to root out the forces of darkness . . . the evil undead, alien creatures threatening earthly annihilation, superpowered evil masterminds . . . ” This trope — familiar from Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D. tales and Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, among others — is customized by the fact that the entire staff of the Regional Office consists of “superpowered warrior women, trained . . . to engage in this never-ending fight.” That the only male of any consequence, Mr. Niles, serves as the director gives the premise a kind of Charlie’s Angels vibe. Meanwhile, fans of Thomas Pynchon will certainly recall from Vineland “a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers . . . the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives.” Lastly, given the overall comic-book ambiance Gonzales expertly conjures up (references to Spider-Man and the X-Men abound), I am put in mind of the great Richard Sala’s fighting femmes from such graphic novels as Violenzia.

In any case, the decompressed real-time narrative involves the titular attack, rather than any past exploits of the Regional Office. In fact, those older adventures are deliberately scanted to focus on the downfall of the Regional Office and the roots thereof. As well, the complicated personal histories of the participants hold our interest just as firmly. And a frenetic, action-packed event the assault proves to be, delivered in taut prose well suited for the drama.

Wendy punched Sarah in the face . . . And she punched her again, in the chest this time, so hard and so fast that Sarah couldn’t react, couldn’t think, could only fly backward, crashing through the glass wall of her office and into the cubicle right outside it . . .

We experience mainly the POV of one of the attackers, Rose, and one of the defenders, Sarah, in alternating sections. (Their eventual surprising meetup, ten years after the attack, forms the perfect capstone to the book.) Interwoven with the contemporary bloody arc are several back-stories: how Sarah and Rose reached their current positions, through arduous training and many hardships, and how Mr. Niles and the mysterious supernaturally endowed woman named Oyemi came to launch the organization, in a morally suspect manner that makes us ponder the age-old question of ends justifying the means.

What we eventually realize from Gonzales’s deft portrayals of the various protagonists is that we are reading a love story — or multiple, interlinked romances — a tale of affections slighted, hearts done wrong, and revenge enacted on an operatic scale.   Because all the characters possess godlike abilities, melded with all-too-mortal passions, the tale eventually assumes the sheen and substance of classical Olympian fables. Excruciations and ambitions that might look ridiculous in simple humans are worn better by characters that resemble Venus, Mars, and Zeus.

The colloquial prose and outrageous set pieces that Gonzales employs with irrepressible verve offer immense surface pleasures, and this book demands almost to be ingested in a gulp. But he also conjures up surprisingly touching and reflective moments as well, bidding the reader to consider the folly of all striving, and leaving a melancholy afterglow suffused with the absurdity of life.

They weren’t the type [to apologize]. There’d be no, Sorry we took you from the life that you knew, from your family, from your friends, sorry we whisked you away and made promises, so many goddamn promises, all of which we failed to keep. No, Sorry we made you cut that one dude in half, that you still think of him from time to time, wonder about his family, whether he had one, what they might have been told about him, about how he died, sorry you can’t stop picturing that stunned look in his eye.

* * *

Richard Kadrey began his career nearly thirty years ago as a quintessential cyberpunk. His first two books, Metrophage and Kamikaze L’Amour, were mind-blowing technophilic adventures rooted firmly in the Gibsonian mode, with perhaps a smattering of Ballard and Philip K. Dick. His productivity or prominence waned for a time, but in 2009 he returned, reconfigured, with Sandman Slim, a kind of mordant, noirish, rough-edged urban fantasy novel that kicked off a highly successful series. The years have not so much softened his grittiness or madness, or made him go commercial, as they have allowed him to broaden his approach and concerns to reach the audience he always deserved.

The Everything Box premieres what looks to be a marvel of a new series. (Any allusion to Zenna Henderson’s well-regarded bit of sentimental humanist fabulism, “The Anything Box,” is, I suspect, purely accidental or ironic.) The novel is gonzo, ribald, hilarious, zippy and innovative with its magical apparatus and tricks. If Donald Westlake had been a dilettante follower of Satanist Anton LaVey, humanity might have previously been gifted with such a book. Or if Jack Benny’s under-regarded film The Horn Blows at Midnight were remade by the Coen brothers, a similar funhouse ride might ensue.

At the core of the plot is the titular McGuffin, introduced in the prologue and soon to be sought by a half dozen interested brawling parties.

A mythic prologue introduces the angel Qaphsiel on a mountaintop shortly after the Noachian floodwaters have receded. He is on a mission from an unmerciful God to destroy the pitiful remnants of humanity that have survived the deluge. The instrument of the apocalypse is a tiny box containing infinite disasters — the McGuffin of the title. But where exactly is the celestial weapon? Incompetent Qaphsiel has lost it.

Jump-cut to the present day: Coop and Morty are low-level thieves who specialize in stealing magical items in a Los Angeles that is permeated with spells and wizards and uncouth beasties, all unseen by the average citizen. They have small ambitions and think that their newest job for a mysterious Mr. Babylon will set them up nicely with $75,000 apiece. All they have to do is steal a small box and hand it over to him . . .

Of course they’re not the only ones after the box: Kadrey introduces his players with brio and colorful flourishes, and their multiple pursuits soon converge in chaotic Marx Brothers territory. There is the staff at the Department of Peculiar Science, a secret governmental organization (shades of the Gonzales book) whose mission is to combat supernatural dangers. They happen to employ Coop’s alienated ex-lover Giselle. There’s Fast Eddie and crew, murderous rival thieves. There are two combative cults, Abaddonians and the followers of Caleximus. Qaphsiel himself, exiled from Heaven for 4,000 years on our mudball, is still looking for the box. And most spooky of all is the anonymous Stranger who has the ability to shake the very ground cities are built on.

Kadrey has a ball propelling these characters against and around and through each other, with shifting alliances and betrayals. His cinematic rendering of the action — including some bizarre doings in the strange venue of Jinx Town — is well matched with screwball dialogue reminiscent of the Golden Age Hollywood this book often invokes:

Coop . . . felt a blindfold going over his eyes . . . “Would you state your name for the record?”

“Wait,” Coop said. “You kidnapped me and you don’t know who I am?”

“I just need to verify your identity.”

“In that caee, I’m Benjamin Harrison, twenty-third president of the United States.”

“Please be serious. It will make things easier for everyone, including you.”

“Who are you?”

“Your new best friends.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t you take this blindfold off and we can all have a group hug.”

Leavening this quick-witted banter with outrageous metaphors and other figurative speech — “Frank exploded like a piñata full of beef stew” — Kadrey produces passages that have tangible read-aloud potential.

The book concludes, as one might expect of a series opener, with the Earth saved and Coop set up for a change in his status, and confrontation with further occult menaces, his cynicism and sangfroid undimmed.

If you could take the elegant, classic heist film Rififi and get it re-filmed by Preston Sturges and Val Lewton, you might approach the comic dimensions of The Everything Box.