Review: Jack O'Connell, Word Made Flesh (sf novel)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews


The world of Word Made Flesh wavers uneasily between ours and... somewhere else. The Northeastern American city of Quinsigamond does not appear on our maps (though there does appear to be a Quinsigamond Village in or near Worcester, MA), but it is a familiar place to anyone whose mental geographies include, say, China Miéville's New Crobuzon, or Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, or Frank Miller's Sin City, perhaps, or the later Batman's dark Gotham City. Quinsigamond is a great city that has fallen on hard times, drawn in unrelieved red and black, bone-gray and white, like the dust jacket of the book itself. Its grand architecture is in decay. The factories have closed and the streets are unswept. Its various European ethnicities have not mixed in the melting pot quite as much as one might hope. So much is familiar from our own Rust Belt.

But Quinsigamond is not a mere placeholder for any of the cities in our familiar atlases and gazetteers. It exists in addition to these places, in some sidewise plane.

Likewise, the European country of Old Bohemia exists in parallel to other, more familiar names, sandwiched among nations which too went through their fascist and bellicose periods, but are now much quieter. Nazis are mentioned, but Old Bohemia seems to have had its own individual Holocaust, as one part of which an entire Jewish quarter of the city of Maisel was... obliterated.

Word Made Flesh is not always an easy book to read. The frame of O'Connell's fiction allows him to describe this event, and others, in lyrical and documentary terms almost as unrestrained as the crimes they portray.

It is the characters inhabiting Quinsigamond, though, who allow us to engage with it and appreciate its decadent beauty. Gilrein (if he ever had a first name, no one seems to know it) is our primary viewpoint, an ex-cop who is now driving a cab using a license inherited from his father, trying to survive and stay independent by taking passengers in places where the Red and the Black (the bloated and corrupt cab companies which have divided up most of Quinsigamond between them) will not venture. Hence his fares are often the felons he would formerly have arrested. They appreciate the irony, more than Gilrein does. Gilrein spends most of his days mourning his wife Ceil, also a cop, killed in the line of duty during a raid on a rogue printing operation.

Words... words suffuse this book, spill over its edges, inhabit not only its pages but every mossy, malodorous crevice of Quinsigamond's days and nights. A mysterious and incurable plague known as the Grippe attacks the tongue and causes strange speeches, before stealing words entirely. Ceil's former supervisor, the mad Inspector Emil Lacazze, has built his career upon a Methodology of prisoner interrogation based on word association. The most powerful crime bosses in the city, men like the bloodthirsty and elegant Bohemian immigrant August Kroger, fancy themselves litterateurs and bibliophiles. Kroger has gone so far as to hire himself a personal librarian. And Gilrein himself turns out to be the one who gave Leo Tani his last cab ride - Leo, who died shortly thereafter, due to his unfortunate mishandling of one very special book.

I wax verbose, and I've still only scratched the surface of this richly rewarding book. But then, as O'Connell says on p. 182, what happened to me when I read Word Made Flesh is simple, and it may happen to you as well:

"It's an old story, really: seduced and corrupted, in the end, by an obsessive love for the text."

You have been warned.

©2009 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Last updated February 7, 2009.

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