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Critics often label works of art with a genre tag so their readership can choose according to taste. Mr. Grimwood is acquiring a reputation as a New Weird author who mixes Roman Noir with Science Fiction. This is my first outing with JC, so I can't comment on his body of work, but End of the World Blues reads as neither. Or, more conclusively, a not very successful neither.
Now, that's not to say it doesn't have other qualities, or that it is not a worthwhile perusal. My primary slime slinging is that of mislabeling. The technical competence of this novel is formidable and inspiring. The content, well, here goes . . .
Kit Nouveau —starting anew with another of the nine lives, get it?—is a former punk-rock band member who somehow became a British Army sniper, then got haunted by his past cacks and went AWOL to avoid Iraq, who is now living in Tokyo married to a famous Japanese ceramicist and running an Irish-themed biker bar named Pirate Mary's, that's probably inspired by his supposed-suicided ex-girlfriend whose mother is an Irish mobster. Kit's no stranger to gangsters and their women; even his wife's twin sister is married to one, and Kit's also having a current affair with the wife of a Yakusa boss. Funny, people are suddenly trying to kill him. The bar's bombed, and an assassination is thwarted by the appearance of a teener from the future called Lady Neku who is quite an adept plugger herself. If you've just spit on the computer screen yelling “Spoilers!”, wipe it off. I've just pretty much plagiarized the DJ flap's blurb.
“Holy Glop, Batman, things are rollin' now,” you say. Except, readin' it, it doesn't feel that way. Because—and quite possibly the saving grace of the novel—Mr. Grimwood is a stylist. All the above rapsheet details are dug out of the cracks between paragraphs while the colors, tastes, and smells of the novel glides by. In fact, most insights come well after the action has passed. This can be irksome and confusing, but it certainly makes you ponder and look ahead for possible clues and solutions while the pace slows down to somewhere between real life and comic book slam-bang. It also compliments the main theme of this work when you ask, over and over, “who the hell is this guy?”
Because, you see, it's all about how one's recognized, your self-awareness, and possible re-invention.
“Identity seems to me to be fluid and I've long believed that people remake themselves according to circumstance or necessity”, said Grimwood in an interview on www.sfsite.com from 2002. “Quite apart from being whoever society, genetic disposition and experience make us, we're whoever we make ourselves. This is the theme of most of my novels.”
Okay, but however re-configuration occurs, there's vertebral guidelines to consider. Ultimately, Kit achieves release from his personal demons of past makeovers by reaching deep into the mental luggage he's carried throughout his travails. He massages away the buried guilt of long ago mistaken decisions and/or circumstances by dutifully forcing himself through the chicanery—his own and of others—to the rightfulness of present events. He acts from a basic belief system of integrity; his core identity has not changed, just temporarily been misplaced in reaction to what confronts him. That he acts in accordance to what this book's readers consider good and right and moral does not change the fact that its hero responds from outside provocation. Nor does it alter the fact that Kit's awareness of self, once kicked out of denial and into action, must be sated of its conceived misdeeds by acts of karmic penitence. Or, as ex-girlfriend Mary —a huge self-flagellation button for Kit —says regarding his protection of Lady Neku , “so, you're using this girl to repay a debt you owe me?” (Gollancz, ISBN 057507616x, c.2006, p.289). From his infirmary bed at the end of the novel, balance is achieved and harmony restored.
This novel is too bloated with the staples of Crime Fiction to be pegged as Mainstream. But it is not even close to the mental and physical unravelings of most hardboiled protagonists. Anyone familiar with noir, whether filmic or literary, knows that if the story ends at the hospital, the hero's dead. Hell, he's dead period when the credits finally roll. Grimwood—it is a tempting name for a noir writer, isn't it?—is hardly shades of grey into the despairing atmosphere of alienation, hopelessness, complete moral disintegration, and just plain bad luck boiling gloom and spilled guts through a noir tome. If you want a take on Identity through the really crepuscular vision in Noirworld, read Jim Thompson's Savage Night. Otherwise, don't insult the memory of James M. Cain by putting it in his cranny.
This brings us to the main genre sticker End of the World Blues has acquired. The plotline of Lady Neku's origins is very, very subservient to the main flow. For pageturning, it's like hitting a section of black ice in the highway: you hope to skid through rapidly without going off track. Unfortunately, what breadcrumbs we get about her cloyed and Borgia-like family at the end of man's time on the Earth are fascinating. Deciphering it like a thriller with backstory revealed through the sequence of action, it seems to disrupt the whole and take away from the mainstream thrust of the story. It might have been less obtrusive as a fantasy-life delusion of Lady Neku's, reversed from her wannabe posturing as a cos-play street urchin.
Is it possible that it needed the Science Fiction byline to be properly published and move on to win the BSFA and shortlist the Arthur C. Clark award this year? That would more than justify the nawa-no-ukiyo chapters' queasy misfittings, I guess.
But I still think Lady Neku's family deserves a novel of their own.
Maybe with a present-day sub-plot involving a role-playing Yakusa hitman while exiled in London . . .