Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review of Gun Machine

You know Warren Ellis, and if you don't know Warren Ellis there is a festering gap in your life, riddled with information viruses. His comic series Transmetropolitan, set in a distant future and starring the Hunter S. Thompson inspired radical rabble-rousing journalist Spider Jerusalem, is one of those terrifying and brilliant works (like Infinite Jest) that drifts more and more towards non-fiction, as our technology and society continue their solipsistic death-spiral. Yes, it is on the required reading list, and yes, there will be a test, and no, you do not want to know what will happen if you fail said test. In Gun Machine, Ellis turns his two-headed chain smoking cat of an imagination on the New York City cop thriller, modernizing the characters and twisting the genre into something unique.

John Tallow is a cop who is pretty much just punching the clock. He puts in his hours, he goes home, he reads; rinse and repeat. He wallows in information, almost always having several different devices constantly pouring data over him. Like so many of us, he is just doing what it takes to keep the paychecks coming, but unlike most of us, he seems to have found a relatively comfortable emotional space for himself in his own particular brand of iStagnation, not particularly seeking professional satisfaction or friendship or true love. Well, it's not hard to see the partner's brains splattered over the mildewed ridden walls of a decaying apartment building by a doctor recommended dose of crazy pants fired shotgun shells in this scenario. And yes, Tallow does get a little partner-plus-shotgun effluvia on him.

When he investigates one of the apartments in the building, Tallow discovers hundreds of guns filling the entire place, arrayed in a complex and clearly significant pattern. And if that wasn't interesting—in the cop sense—enough the actual front door to said apartment is a high-end nigh on impregnable security door. Not only does discovering this apartment drop an foot-long turd sandwich on the NYPD, (which they make Tallow eat, because you know, finding the guns has the exact same moral weight as shooting puppies with them), but it also draws the attention of the apartment's owner, a mysterious serial killer wafting back and forth in his consciousness between modern Manhattan and ancient Manhatta.

Powerful men are involved with the mysterious killer and Tallow is eventually shoved over to the outcasts at evidence collection where he gains his only two allies on the police force; Bat and Scarly. Bat and Scarly will be familiar characters to fans of Ellis' work; twitchy, angry, manic, stepping up to the line of parody and then kicking it in the balls, and entertaining. The investigation into the gun machine will be mostly familiar to fans of cop thrillers, but Ellis has a very unfamiliar storytelling style and the result is a story that is comfortable enough to be entertainment, but interesting enough to be really good entertainment.

Gun Machine has two shortcomings. The first might be just a personal preference of mine that I won't share here because it would provide a spoiler about the villain. The second is that Ellis has a hard time matching the imagery and effect of the opening few chapters, where Tallow's partner is killed and the Gun Machine itself is revealed. It is such a fascinating image, such a perfect metaphor for some aspects of American society, such a mysterious entity whose possible explanations rattled through my imagination, such a downright cool visual image, that everything following suffered in comparison. It would have been very difficult indeed for its ultimate solution to be as fascinating as its mystery. Had Ellis pulled it off, he would have written one of the great cop novels.

Regardless, Gun Machine will still be one of the best cop novels you read this year (maybe for the next several years). Tallow is a fantastic character, utilizing some of the forms of the “downtrodden,” cop without being beholden to their formulas. I mean, he even likes to read. He reads! Likewise, Bat and Scarly could have easily been filler characters, but Ellis has a way of turning up the volume on characters, environments, situations, fire arms, and everything else so that it goes way past parody and cliché into something totally unique and a lot of fun. Ultimately, you'd be hard pressed to find a cop novel that has a broader appeal and it'd be damn near impossible to find one that also doesn't pander to some lowest common denominator. I don't know if Gun Machine will be Ellis' breakout novel in America, (I mean, who the fuck knows what's going to be popular in books because, well, you've seen what's gotten huge) but if it is, America will be a much more interesting place. (You've started Transmetropolitan, right? Right? Well.)

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