Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: LOVE IS THE LAW by Nick Mamatas

Love Is the Law by Nick Mamatas
Dark Horse
Buy at Powell's or Amazon.

"Golden" Dawn Seliger is the only genius on Long Island. A punk, a Communist, and a follower of the occult works of Aleister Crowley, Dawn's world is overturned with the death of her mentor Bernstein, an apparent suicide. But Dawn knows better, and in Nick Mamatas' first crime novel, she intends to get to the bottom of it like a counter-cultural Harriet the Spy.

I first heard about this novel on Twitter, when Nick was having some fun with the Nanowrimo folks by throwing together random motley elements as his "Nano novel." I remember reading the tweet, laughing because it sounded so awesome but also really ridiculous, then forgot about it. A few months later he started blogging about how he was writing the thing. Whoa, really? I looked forward to reading it because I tend to like Nick's writing a lot, but of course part of me was wondering if a book generated from a throwaway comment on Twitter would work, even in a good writer's hands.

Well, it definitely works! This is a confident genre-fuck of a book, equal parts mystery and magickal fantasy. As Dawn seeks j______ for Bernstein, she finds herself caught up in conspiracy after conspiracy, aided by (not that it's their choice) a rich Marxist lawyer and a burnout from her former high school, among others. There are some of the usual mystery/noir tropes: the search for clues, interrogations, chasing down leads, the final reveal. But this is in no way a standard mystery, as the conclusion Dawn is inexorably drawn to comes from a definite otherworldly place, and Dawn is certainly no ordinary detective. In another writer's hands, there might have been a point where Dawn lost her tough exterior and learned to cooperate with her male companions and tie up all the loose ends with a ribbon and a moral, perhaps falling in love with one of them along the way. No. Love Is the Law never once loses its brutal edge, down to the haunting final sentence.

A book this short (and oh, rare is the modern writer who can tell us a story in exactly as many words as needed and no more) would be "spoiled" by saying too much about the plot but I can tell you that the Marxism and the Thelema totally come together. In one of his blog posts, Nick says that he considers Salinger one of his literary models, and I definitely saw that in the dialogue: true to life, a little bit "off," hyper-realistic. Everything is filtered so well through Dawn's cynical perspective that you don't realize that while you're going along with the mystery aspect of the plot, you're also learning things: about magick, yes, but also about the system that keeps us all chained down, even people as iconoclastic as Dawn. I guess in parts it's a bit of a polemic, but I like that kind of thing (and do that kind of thing), so it totally worked for me.

My favorite aspect of the book, though, might be its setting. While I've never been to Long Island and probably never will be, it comes alive in Love Is the Law. Nick perfectly captures what it's like to feel trapped in a small, class-divided town that's so close yet so far from a major city (yeah, that hits close to home... though Pittsburgh isn't quite NYC). It is indeed a Looooong Island, and the varied cast of supporting characters paints a picture of barely concealed class strife and cultural diversity without ever once "telling" (I think the whole tell/show dichotomy is over-simplified but go with it) you a thing. He also has a strong sense of time, as the book is set at the end of the Cold War and the characters, with their disparate Marxist views, act and react accordingly.

I can guarantee you that this is the best novel about a Marxist Thelemite punk rock girl detective that you'll ever read. If this is what Nick's interpretation of a crime novel is, then keep them coming!

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