(Dog Horn Publishing, 2012); pbk, £ 12.99
“Schizoid” might be the right word for Douglas Thompson’s novel Mechagnosis; it is brim-full of metaphysical leaps, time travel, esoteric references and apocalyptic imagery, and while these elements certainly test the reader, they produce an extremely enjoyable whole.
Scott Malthrop is the character at the centre of the storm. Part engineering prodigy, part lost child, part calculating killer, he has dutifully lived out a contradiction prepared for him by his late father: to build a machine to end all machines. According to Malthrop Senior’s paranoiac Luddism, previous technologies had the effect of alienating and dehumanising, but his machine (“The Machine”) will be “the antidote to all the others” (p 79) – it will permit time travel and reclaim humanity, religion, and God. Living out this madness has turned the Malthrop home into the embodiment of “The Machine”, and, in the process, a brother and sister have been “disappeared”, like flies to the Malthrop spider. This stage having been set, Thompson builds a fast-paced drama around two attempts to track Malthrop Junior down: one conducted by Wroclaw, a worn-out police detective; the other by Merkiel and Seralta, two of God’s avenging angels.
If this all seems a little overwhelming, it might come as either a relief or a disappointment to detect competing forms of genre fiction in the background of Mechagnosis: the detective novel, in the slightly stereotyped figure of Wroclaw; horror, in several gory, Clive Barker-esque moments; and science-fiction, in the time travel speculations. It would, however, be a mistake to see the novel as reducible to these parts. In fact, as a whole it amounts to a great deal more. In the character of Malthrop Junior, there are shades of Norman Bates and Oskar, the psychotic homunculus of Grass’ The Tin Drum; in the general air of surreal gothic, there are equal doses of Lanark and Gormenghast; in the metaphysics, there are echoes of some of Murakami’s more hallucinatory work (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dance, Dance, Dance, in particular).
Thompson uses different tools to synthesise the book’s many elements: chapter one is an assault of curiosities and a roving narrative; chapter two splits time and character perspectives, and introduces a nice trick (no spoilers here!) to deal with the presence of the angels; chapter six is elegantly self-contained and could feature as a short story demonstrating the best of Thompson’s prowess. Perhaps the key unifying tool, however, is the book’s cinematic ambience – Brazil, Willardand several Guillermo del Toro films sprang into my mind when reading it, but, again, Thompson transcends these elements.
There are some aspects that frustrate. At points, it feels as though Thompson is trying to spin too many plates at once; at others, that he is wilfully toying with the reader. For all the arch techniques, the harshest criticism would be thatthe core of Mechagnosis is a relatively straightforward take on the detective novel. Such a criticism would, however, be unjust: Thompson’s techniques are not overly studied, nor mere ornamentation; they are rather an attempt to make form match content – like Malthrop, he is trying, in the form of this novel, to weld together an infernal machine of his own.
Much more could be said – about implicit references we haven’t covered (Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”? Waiting For Godot? Jekyll and Hyde? Lautréamont? Borges? Poe? Roald Dahl?!), about the role of Thompson’s explicit references (Rilke, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche), or about the fact that this book contains many beautiful sentences (“Objects retain the imprint of the people that make them and use them. Through the objects, I recover the people inside my head, I surround myself with their essence”(p 51)). It might be better, however, simply to re-emphasise that this book – learned, ambitious, and driven forward by a kind of literary black magic – is considerably more than the sum of its very many parts.