So, you want to write a thought-provoking novel about consciousness, death, fatherhood and the role of narrative in our lives? What’s the best way to do it? A stereotypical gothic mansion turned into a health clinic run by a mad scientist doesn’t sound like a promising start. A split universe setting whose hero is chick, a circus freak troupe character who is basically a chicken-boy, wouldn’t be the average novelist’s choice either. Jack O’Connell, whom I had never heard of before picking up The Resurrectionist*, is thankfully far from average, and has managed to dive into these themes in exactly that manner, and in the process has conjured up a dark, delirious, and gripping story that remained with this reader long after the final page was turned.
The story centers around Sweeney, a pharmacist desperately seeking a cure for his comatose son Danny. He moves his son to the fortresslike Peck clinic, where hushed voices suggest that they’re ground-breaking experiments have managed to resurrect patients from their vegetative states. At the same time Sweeney, in an attempt to remain close to his son, starts reading Danny’s favourite comic book Limbo, where a ragged troupe of circus freaks is led on an exodus by Chick, the chicken-boy, a charismatic but feable boy blessed with a hard beak-like cartillage in place of a mouth, and with “a tendency to fugues and trances, with a notion of a long-lost father”.
From the beautiful but melodramatic cover through to the synopsis I would have pegged this as a prime novel to miss – gothic drama and comic book characterisation leave me cold, but O’Connell is a gifted storyteller who knows how to hook you, using short rhythmic sentences to propel you into a dark fictional world where the one thing you can be sure of is that nothing is going to play out the way you imagine – you’re in the exciting imagination of someone else. It’s the direct opposite of cliche.
There are two key problems with the use of the fantastic – at least for me – in a novel. The first is that if everything is fantastic and possible, that precious moment when you draw your breath in wonder is either diluted or destroyed by overuse. Freed from the constraints of the laws of physics it becomes a difficult balancing trick to work out what you should include in your story – much of it comes down to instinct, and in this regard O’Connell comes up trumps. There is one outstanding scene in the book, set in the comic-book world of limbo which literally took my breath away, and it was all to do with timing, drama, and good old-fashioned storytelling nous rather than throwing in further freakishness into the mix.
The second problem is that divorced from the cornerstones of reality much fantasy may read well, and entertain, but at the end fails to make a connection, to leave a lasting impression, because the end reaction of a discerning reader is ‘cool, so what?’. The Resurrectionist, though, is rooted in reality, and like the best of gothic fiction takes on and amplifies the fears of a society. Just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula was succesful because it touched upon victorian anxieties of sexual disease / and or the arrival of eastern european migrants, or Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer dealt with madness and the death of religion, so The Resurrectionist makes a play to be the novel most connected to our most-modern fear – the survival of the body after consciousness has been lost.
I’m not one to quote blurbs normally, but James Ellroy’s summing up of The Resurrectionist is perfect:
“The Resurrectionist – a brilliantly tuned, mesmerizing labyrinth of a quasi-real world as only a master artist could draw it – will jazz you, floor you, grab you, shake you, and leave you hung out to dry. A brilliant breakthrough novel.” Indeed.
*O’Connell is, in fact, the author of five novels – four of which I’ve gone out and immediately ordered.