Catch a Brain Wave

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Sunday, June 29, 2008


By Jack O'Connell

Algonquin. 304 pp. $24.95

You would think that a conversation between a mad scientist and his prized newt might not stand out in a novel dominated by sociopathic bikers, a father's unbearable guilt and a sad quest by a group of sideshow freaks.

You would be wrong. In the strange crucible of reality and imagination that is The Resurrectionist, by Jack O'Connell, their one-sided exchange exemplifies the author's sheer chutzpah: from its meticulous attention to detail to the parallels between Dr. Peck, founder of a coma clinic, and his blue-spotted newt, Rene. "Both [man and animal] were naturally nocturnal," O'Connell writes. "Both were deaf to conventional wisdom. Both were regenerators, magicians who could raise up that which had been lost or damaged or cut away." Despite its static qualities, the scene is a classic of recent modern fiction, revealing worlds about a pivotal character.

The Resurrectionist is full of such surprising scenes. An emotionally damaged man named Sweeney has brought his son, Danny, to Dr. Peck's clinic. He's trying to get away from Cleveland, the site of the accident that led to Danny's condition and killed Sweeney's wife. Though the boy is comatose, we see his dreams about a band of freaks from his favorite comic book, "Limbo." O'Connell threads these freaks' purgatorial adventures throughout the novel. Meanwhile, in the real world, a biker gang led by a thuggish visionary intends to enter the comic book world of "Limbo" by means that might either harm or save Danny. When Sweeney discovers that Dr. Peck has been subjecting his coma patients to horrible experiments, he must navigate through this funhouse landscape to try to save his son and himself.

Much of this unholy amalgamation, set in the same contemporary "rust-belt" city as O'Connell's prior novels, shouldn't work -- and some of it doesn't. At times the layering of levels and symbolism doesn't quite cohere. And faced with an overabundance of plot complications, O'Connell allows certain characters to disappear for too long.

Yet these flaws seem minor in the context of the novel -- nullified by brilliant writing, original concepts, emotional resonance and O'Connell's fearlessness. I've read The Resurrectionist twice now, and both times it came as something of a revelation. It seems odd we should care so much about the freaks, for example, when we know they're merely characters in a boy's comic book. Nor should the dream-life of a coma patient be so resonant, and yet it is.

The newt may be mute, but it speaks volumes.

-- Jeff VanderMeer co-edited "New Weird," "Steampunk" and "Best American Fantasy."

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