Strange Flesh

Strange Flesh

by Michael Olson


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Strange Flesh by Michael Olson

With its audacious premise, seductive prose, and dazzling climax, Strange Flesh will be the novel everyone is talking about this year.


“The only clue we have to our brother’s whereabouts is this place that doesn’t really exist.” Ten years ago, Blythe Randall broke James Pryce’s heart. Now she needs his help. Her enigmatic appeal lures the elite hacker into his most tantalizing, and most personal, assignment yet. A Harvard dropout employed by Manhattan-based RedRook Security, James makes a living finding people who don’t want to be found, pursuing their digital tracks around the globe, flushing out criminals, and exacting creative high-tech revenge on behalf of his clients. But this time he’s following his target—billionaire multimedia artist Billy Randall—into an exotic and treacherous world: a virtual one.

Capping off an erratic, increasingly violent series of stunts meant to plague his family’s media empire, black sheep Billy sends a video of his own suicide to his older siblings, aristocratic twins Blythe and Blake. In it, Billy “jacks out,” reanimating onscreen as an avatar in a decadent online world called NOD. The performance is pure Billy—he has always been obsessed with “the Bleed”: the moment when real and virtual selves intersect, where actions in one life breed consequences in another.

Blythe uses her influence to install James at GAME, a downtown media collective and one of Billy’s recent haunts. Posing as a documentarian, James gains access to a small band of artists and programmers—contemporaries, and in some cases enemies, of Billy Randall—whose top secret project represents the holy grail of virtual reality. Meanwhile, James learns that as part of his most recent scheme, Billy himself has designed a lavish alternate reality game, an escalating, high-stakes virtual landscape of strange flesh.

In order to find him, James must play along.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451627572
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Michael Olson graduated from Harvard and worked in investment banking and software engineering before earning a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Technology Program, where he designed a locomotion interface for virtual environments.

Read an Excerpt

Strange Flesh

  • Blake’s assistant, a tall Caribbean beauty in a black Chanel suit, opens the door to what looks like a salon, in the eighteenth-century sense of the word. The walls are graced with finely framed paintings that I feel like I should recognize. Ritual masks from obscure religions watch from the bookshelves. She seats me in a leather armchair with brass studs along the seams.

    “Mr. Randall will be with you shortly.”

    Once she departs, a side door opens, and out slides Blake. As he extends his hand, he flashes me a mock anxiety smile, like we’re old conspirators dealing with something unpleasant, but by no means unexpected.

    “Pryce, good to see you.”

    “You as well, Blake.”

    As we shake, I notice a small tattoo emerging past the cuff of his shirt, unmistakable as the head of the King of Hearts playing card.

    A bit more solemnity in his eyes. “I heard about your recent, ah, troubles. But you seem to be bearing up all right. Please join us.”

    He ushers me into an equally opulent office. Seated at his desk, looking up at the ceiling, is Blake’s twin.

    “James, I’m sure you remember my sister.”

    Blake knows that nobody forgets Blythe Randall, least of all me.

    She stands languorously. Like a cat who’s had just enough time in the sun. She cocks her head and fixes me with her lambent green eyes. “James Pryce. So nice to see an old friend.”

    My vision twitches.

    Is she toying with me? Is that an ironic twinkle in her eye?

    Luckily fatigue diminishes my need to obsess over her diction. So I fall back on blank courtesy.

    “It’s been entirely too long . . .” I find I can’t say her name yet. “I hope you’re both doing well.”

    Blythe flicks her eyes toward Blake. She lets out a long breath, almost a sigh, and mashes a cigarette that had been burning in the ashtray next to her. Which is interesting. Blythe only ever smoked when she was drinking. Or when she was nervous.

    She says, “Of course you’ve heard about . . . our brother.”

    “Well . . . I can’t say I know the details,” I manage, willing myself to stop gaping at her like a moonstruck toddler. “I take it he’s in some kind of trouble?”

    Blake frowns. “Half brother actually. Our father took it upon himself to impregnate and then marry our au pair when we were eight. Our mother never really recovered and, after we enrolled at Exeter, has been in and out—well. . .” He shrugs. “Needless to say, we were not close. He fancies himself an avant-garde artist, so some time ago he changed his name. It’s now ‘Coit S. D. Files.’ You’re meant to say it ‘coitus defiles.’ But nobody does.”

    “Everyone still calls him Billy, even when they don’t know who he really is. The name followed him despite his efforts to reinvent himself,” says Blythe.

    Blake asks, “We assume you adhere to some principle of client confidentiality in your . . . line of work?”

    “With Red Rook it’s more like omertà.”

    Blythe nods. “So after the divorce, our father tried very hard to create a functional stepfamily. But it wasn’t to be. Billy’s mother Lucia was very beautiful and naturally fifteen years younger than our mother. But she was also . . . emotionally unstable. After a huge fight, they separated—this was in 2000 when we were at college.”

    “She was found dead at our old beach house a month later,” Blake says. “Overindulgence in her twin passions for Stoli and Seconal.”

    Blythe pats her brother and leaves her hand on his shoulder as if trying to physically restrain him from further interruption. “Billy was the one who found her. He was only thirteen . . . Our father was devastated as well.”

    “And as you know, he was killed in a car accident a year later.” On saying this, Blake unconsciously shoots his cuff, covering up his King of Hearts tattoo. His gesture makes me curious about its significance. That card is named the “Suicide King” for the sword he appears to be stabbing into the back of his head. The twins’ father, Robert Randall, had driven his Bugatti off a cliff on Mulholland Drive. His death had been ruled an accident, but there was talk about a lack of skid marks on a dry road. I assume the tattoo is some kind of tribute. Or maybe a reminder of whatever tragic epiphany his father’s death inspired.

    Blythe continues. “Billy wanted nothing to do with us and went to live with his godfather, Gerhard Loring, who was our father’s best friend and now chairs IMP’s board. Eventually, Ger got him into the Rhode Island School of Design, and he seemed to be doing okay there. The problem with art, though, is that what it craves more than anything is attention. Despite the level of media interest our father’s business has always attracted, we dislike publicity. I’m not sure what changed, but Billy began producing these . . . I don’t even know what to call them. Installations? Happenings? Art games?”

    Blake says, “I would call them frivolous garbage, were it not for the lawsuit.”

    “Colton et al. v. Randall. A delightful piece of civil litigation—settled out of court of course. For his thesis, Billy designed a sort of live role-playing game called NeoRazi. He wanted to create an oppressive celebrity culture on campus, so he set up a tabloid website that recruited participants to take photos of various attractive coeds. The more tasteless and degrading the image, the more money they got. His classmates, most of them being quick with a camera to begin with, promptly generated a litany of police complaints: invasion of privacy, stalking, assault charges against irate boyfriends. One of the girls even had some kind of breakdown.” Blythe lights another cigarette. “The horrible thing was that, due to the abuse these poor women suffered, they became actual local celebrities, and some real paparazzi materialized to continue tormenting them after Billy’s ‘game’ had officially ended.”

    “I take it his work was not well received?”

    “The members of the Rhode Island State Bar were big fans. The girls suing the Razis for harassment; Razis suing them for battery; everybody suing Billy for setting the whole thing up.”

    “I guess one must suffer for his art.”

    Blake adds, “The story was nasty enough that the regional media ran with it for a cycle or two. Including some of our own stations, God damn them. And even they weren’t above asking whether this was the sort of novel content we could expect as the new generation of Randalls takes the reins at IMP.”

    Blythe blows smoke. “But the inquiries that really worried us came from our board.”

    “So we made some changes in Billy’s trust to take the issue off the table. He was not pleased.” Blake smiles like a pride leader who has just gutted an annoying rival.

    His sister examines him, something flickering in her eyes. “The issue could have been handled better. But there’s nothing to be done about it now.”

    He breaks eye contact. “You could say that. But either way, we still didn’t . . . solve the problem. Amazingly, our brother found a warm critical reception for this kind of stuff. Reviews complimented his refined understanding of how the internet’s anonymity promotes gender oppression. So he thinks maybe there’s a future in this racket, and after a couple years drifting through the far reaches of Brooklyn ‘fauxhemia,’ he goes to grad school to hone his ‘insight.’ His work gets even worse.”


    Blake picks a glossy magazine off the coffee table and tosses it into my lap. It’s a recent number of Art Whore with a feature set off by tape flags. Inside I find a two-page photo spread: a shot from the rear of five people standing arm in arm in front of a giant video screen. The back of each neck bears a tattoo. The title reads:
    Five downtown interactivists hacking your reality
    The tattoos from left to right are: an Ethernet jack, a USB hub, a standard quarter-inch amplifier input jack, a drawing of an eye screw with a string running up the neck, and finally, on the only woman in the photo, a small image of the Jack of Hearts from the standard English deck of playing cards.

    This last one makes me smile. I’d been spared a far less tasteful display of cards across my shoulder blades on the day after my great poker victory by Cambridge’s uptight ordinance that you actually have to remain conscious in order to have ink done.

    I skim quickly through the article, which describes in maddening postmodern jargon the recent work of this loose confederation of artists broadly dealing with “issues of identity malleability in digitally constructed narrative spaces.” According to the caption, their brother is the one with the string running up his neck. The text covering Billy says that he’s worked with LARPs (Live-Action Role Playing), BUGs (Big Urban Games), and ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). The last of these explains his tattoo.

    ARGs are new-media hybrids using the whole communications spectrum—phone, email, web, forums, video—to allow a group of players to discover a hidden narrative that plays out over the course of the game. The people who organize them are called the “puppet masters.” So Billy’s screw-and-string tattoo favors the ARG paradigm by making him a giant living marionette. I guess NeoRazi could be seen as an early experiment in the genre.

    I want to read the article more thoroughly, but I look up at the twins and say, “So . . . ?”

    Blythe inclines her head at the magazine. “Two of the people in that picture are now dead. Second from the left, an ambiguous drug overdose a couple months ago. Then the last one, the girl, almost decapitated herself three weeks later. Billy used her as an actress in this repulsive video he made. I’m sure you can find it online somewhere.”

    Blake says, “Which leads us to another video . . .”

    Blythe steps over to an end table on which stands a ceramic statue holding a long remote as though it’s a scepter. She plucks it from his grasp, and while she thumbs a sequence of buttons, I take a moment to study the thing. It’s an ugly-but-cute blue-scaled creature with spindly appendages, small pointed pig’s ears, and a large head filled almost entirely with a single massive eye. I decide he must be an imp, his peculiar anatomy a mordant representation of IMP’s customers: giant eyeballs dedicated to consuming company product. A private jest.

    The lights dim and a white screen descends from the far wall. A projector opposite whirs quietly to life.

    Blythe selects a file called Jacking-Out. “This video was sent to Blake from a dummy email account two days ago.”

    —   —   —

    Darkness. Then a shot displaying a naked man of maybe twenty-seven seated in front of a bank of monitors. He presents a striking contrast to his siblings. His head is covered with a tufted anti-haircut, a few jet-black locks hanging limply over his face. His eyes are so dark that pupil and iris seem to merge into inhuman anime dots. He shares the twins’ pallor, but where on them you’d describe it as luminous, on him the word that leaps to mind is “sickly.” The periodic beeping of a heart monitor on one of the screens behind him enhances that impression.

    Billy’s sense of physical malaise is deepened by a painful-looking Prince Albert piercing through his penis. Hung from which he’s got a large golden crocodile pendant that closely replicates the world-famous logo for Lacoste sportswear, the touchstone of preppy culture until Ralph Lauren’s polo ponies nearly trampled it to death in the eighties.

    The chair he’s sitting on is made of rough planks. Affixed to its back is a rusty metal band that’s fastened around his forehead. Thick wires descend from the band and attach to a bank of car batteries at his feet. While it’s impossible to follow exactly, a large throw-switch next to his right hand appears to control the circuit.

    An improvised electric chair. I tense in anticipation.

    Billy declaims in a slow rasp:

    As a final farewell, Blake, I thought to indulge your greatest fantasy. I know you’ve often wished that I’d just jack out like she did. But be careful what you wish for. My ghost may come back to haunt you. And lead you down your own path of torment. For I will rain down brimstone and fire upon your festering Sodom. And when you look, lo, the smoke from your life will rise up like the smoke from a furnace.

    He then throws the switch, sending his body into violent convulsions. His eyes bulge, and his hands form unnatural claws. Blood trickles down his chin after he bites his tongue. It goes on for an excruciating ten seconds or so, his skin blackening around the metal head restraint. The heart monitor becomes a frenetic screech of trauma. Then the beeping abruptly stops. At this point, the juice must have cut off, since Billy’s body relaxes. Foamy mucus drips from his nose and mixes with the blood now freely coursing from his mouth.

    The camera lingers on his still form and then cuts to black.

    —   —   —

    Blake brings up the lights, and the three of us sit looking at one another. I’m not altogether sure what I’ve been shown, so I just say, “I’m sorry.”

    He sniffs. “Don’t be. It’s a fake. Our brother is extremely disturbed, and—”

    “He needs help.” Blythe’s words are soft and almost without affect. I can see Blake framing a sarcastic reply, but some subtle detail of her posture must alert him to the fact that she’s holding back a reservoir of pain. His initially dismissive gesture blends into one of apology. He stares at her expectantly. I’m no longer in the room.

    I clear my throat and ask, “Why do you say it’s fake?”

    Blake looks away from his sister. He pulls up the video again. “It’s just his typical plug-head drivel.” He stands up and points to one of the monitors behind Billy.

    It shows a 3D scene set in the courtyard of a ruined castle.

    Blake says, “Watch this space when the heart monitor stops.” He plays the video, and sure enough, as Billy’s body slumps, an avatar modeled to resemble him slowly fades into the game world with a ghostly particle effect.

    “He’s not dying. He’s just virtualizing himself. Which, at least for the moment, is science fiction. Ergo, this video is bullshit.”

    “It certainly looks convincing.”

    “He may have used real electricity. Maybe even harmed himself for the sake of realism. But we don’t believe Billy has the good grace to actually . . . Well, anyway, this is just another stupid shock-art project.” Blake grimaces at the rogue pun. “So to speak.”

    “You know it’s more than that, Blake,” says Blythe.

    “What do you mean?” I ask her.

    “We can’t find him. It’s like he really has dematerialized.”

    Blake adds, “His apartment is cleared out. None of his . . . associates have seen him in weeks. He hasn’t been at work. No financial transactions, cell phone calls. Nothing.”

    “But you think he’s alive. He’s just”—I’m reaching here—“faked his own death? Why?”

    “Why does someone like him do anything? He’s totally bug-fuck. I’m sorry, Blythe, but it’s true.”

    “I understand that his work is, ah, on the dark side, but what makes you believe he’s actually crazy?”

    “Oh, I don’t know.” Blake starts ticking things off his fingers. “In the years since our differences over that first lawsuit, he’s sent me a ream of threatening emails. His work has become even more depraved. Recently he’s taken to getting himself arrested for petty outbursts.”

    “But this feels like . . . a more significant departure. Like he’s planning to target Blake in some way,” Blythe continues. “That online world you see Billy enter is the ever-popular NOD. The only clue we have to his whereabouts is this place that doesn’t really exist.”

    “I see.”

    Blake says, “Ms. Mercer assures us your technical skills are top-notch. She also says you’ve had a number of assignments involving . . . undercover work.”

    Blythe says, “We want you to find our brother. Before he really does harm himself. Or someone else.”

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    Strange Flesh 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Janet_J More than 1 year ago
    Exceptionally well done. Enjoyed every page!
    The_Paperback_Pursuer More than 1 year ago
    Review: When I started hearing about Strange Flesh from other reviewers, I knew that I wanted to get my hands on a copy, and Simon and Schuster was kind enough to send me an ARC. Others were equating it to 120 Days of Sodom, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, and Ready Player One, books I had thoroughly enjoyed; so I was definitely interested. Unfortunately, I felt that Strange Flesh was lacking many of the components the aforementioned books contained. Yes, the main character was hard to decipher, and technology (virtual reality, the internet, smartphones...) took a prominent role, but where was all the action? I find that most of the story is lost behind unnecessary definition and technical rigmarole; I do not know why Michael Olsen thinks it is obligatory to describe acts and processes that most people able to read the book would already understand, (sex, tech, etc...). I was not a fan of the characters either, they fell flat and evoked close to 0% sympathy from me. A character that started out with potential, James, just became a twisted mass of multiple personalities; from hacker to gunslinger within 200 pages. Do not even get me started on the female characters, because they were all stereo-typically objectified - there was not a strong female in the bunch - just women, sex, and games; the book's noted premise. Speaking of, why does every situation have to be laced with cheap twisted sex scenes? Most people expect a little well-developed heat in a book like this one, especially looking at the cover, but the graphic sexual content felt more prostrate and depraved than sexy and gratifying, most times wanton. Parts of the plot had redeeming qualities, but a book that takes 200+ pages to capture the readers attention will not excite readers. Maybe this book would be better as a hyped-up film, but it is definitely not bestselling novel material. I am not sure that I am comfortable recommending this book to others. Rating: DNR (2/5) *** I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    One of my favorite reads so far this year.