It is said that even in the Before there were those who fell. The curse of their fall was to become Brainworlds. Sentient and eternally celestial, they were unable to generate or sustain life. They were not so much planets as conscious Wholes.
Thus begins American Monster, J.S. Breukelaar’s monstrous novel about a quest for reunion, annihilation and, accidentally, redemption. Norma, formally Norm, is a humanoid creation of a dying Brainworld, Kali 18, referred to as “Mother” or “Mommy.” Norma’s raison d’être (literally) is to find a man with a perfect “horn” that she can reunite with, and bring Kali 18 to this world – this world actually being California, now an autonomous state separated from the continent after a huge earthquake. The story is told in a mixture a linearity and fragmentation that create an almost hypnotic state in the reader.
From a rather classical storytelling approach:
Norma woke two days later arched and gasping. Entombed in sagging mattress. On the floor lay the urchin’s bloody pillow. A roach kicked in a sticky glass by the bed.
We switch to this in a later chapter:
Telefaxis: (n) A process of splitting and then catapulting one aspect of a psyche or sentience (Viewpoint) into a separate physical presence (the host) in an entirely different space/time.
The constant switching of narrative points of view – if the main character is Norm/Norma, we also follow the tracks of her friend/lover Gene (creating the dual star “Norma Gene”), the urchin Raye and a few other minor characters – linked with the definitions taken out of a mysterious cosmic dictionary linked with the Brainworlds, makes the story both dynamic and dizzying, in the best sense of the word.
What’s more, although the novel is basically built on contemporary clichés taken out from our everyday life, like Michael Jackson and commercials (reminiscent in that aspect of Saknussemm’s formidable Zanesville), and clearly refers to dystopias like ‘Mad Max’ or video games like the ‘Fallout’ or ‘Stalker’ series, its world is completely idiosyncratic, thanks to J.S. Breukelaar’s magnificent style and images.
The story itself, with its twists and turns, is extremely enjoyable and veers away from the traditional ‘quest’ novel to morph into a mythical tale of the Future. One can read it as literally as symbolically, but it is up to the reader to decide. J.S. Breukelaar tells everything and nothing at the same time – there are as many holes in the story as there are descriptions.
From hunter/huntress to defender, Norma’s evolution and nearly impossible quest for freedom is heart-wrenching and credible. The more she tries to escape Mother, the more suffering she feels, and forces our empathy, although we are never sure of who/what she really is.
American Monster is not an easy book by any means – on the contrary, it is very challenging, as it kicks against any easy classification and middle-of-the-roadness. In that sense, and because of the (played-down, but nonetheless present) metaphysical aspects, it is in the same league as Hal Duncan’s Vellum, and as rewarding for the discerning reader.
To me, American Monster is, in a way, the great lost American novel everybody’s looking for, except it died long ago and has come back as a winged demon.