I may be the wrong person to review this book. I've never read any of the Beat writers who Nick Mamatas lovingly imitates and appropriates in this book, not even Kerouac's On the Road
I have, however, read plenty of Lovecraft, and other authors treading in Lovecraft's mythos. And, umm, I grew up in California. Albeit not in the 60s. So I kinda know what Mamatas is playing with here.Move Under Ground
was Mamatas's debut novel, and it's quite a trippy read. It really is about Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady trying to save the world from Cthulhu.
R'lyeh rises in the Pacific, and Cthulhu hangs as a ghostly specter over the West Coast. The world starts going mad. San Francisco is flooded. So Jack Kerouac hits the road heading East. He hooks up with his buddies Bill and Neal and they try to outrun the end of the world, even as Azathoth is absorbing the East Coast. There are cameos by Allen Ginsberg and probably a bunch of other people whose references I missed.
So, is this a Beat novel or a Lovecraft mythos novel? It's both! As I said, I have not read any of the Beat writers, but Mamatas sure has a compelling and convincing style here, and at the same time, he captures the hopeless, alien madness of encountering the Elder Gods like few Lovecraftian authors I have seen. As Kerouac and his blitzed, boozy buddies drift through the blasted Midwest, a Shoggoth-infested Chicago, and on to a post-apocalyptic New York, it's not so much an adventure as a road trip through a hell that would make Virgil piss his pants.
Great Chicago glowed red before our eyes. We were suddenly on Madison Street among hordes of cultists, some of them sprawled out on the street, elongated chitinous scythes where their hands used to be dragging across the ground, hundreds of others gathered around storefront churches or crowded onto corners, all waiting and buzzing. "Wup! Wup! Neal approaches! The Man Of Two Worlds, chosen one of Azathoth! All hail Neal!" I cut the wheel hard and proceeded to downtown Chicago, but there wasn't a true human on the streets anymore. Only mockeries of life: flatulent mugwumps in clouds of swampgas, children oozing along the streets on a mass of thick cilia, hawking newspapers of human skin scrawled with unspeakable blasphemies, letters you couldn't even trace upon a page without the madness coming for you. And those were the remnants of our sweet race, the folks who were people once before R'lyeh rose and the missiles tore their way up from the deserts--there were plenty of pretty girls with a smile for our dream car and swarthy working stiffs, chests broad as barrels and V-shaped torsos leading to chinos and black boots, but there were not women, they were not women, they were not men. Shoggoths to a being they were, phalanges, avatars of insanity and destruction mocking me with human form and countenance.
It's a bleak, bleak trip, man. Full of shoggoth orgies and rivers of shit and unspeakable blasphemies.
It may be hard to follow the narrative since Kerouac is narrating like Kerouac and he's stoned most of the time (who can blame him?). Images are nightmarish and surreal. Cthulhu filling the sky as a new feature in the celestial firmament. A man pinching stars out between his fingers. Shoggoth orgies
The plot is barely there, though there is a climax.
I nearly gave it all away, but under the world I made, I saw the one Neal made: drowned coasts, the dead everywhere, clicking beetlemen working in their dark, satanic mills, illusions of gilded trade laid bare. Was it any less beautiful? Of course not--misery is mayfly, beauty dross. Only the spirit, ineffable, remains eternal. There was a choice though; I was given a coin and just had to flip it. And there was a choice for me too.
To be Buddha, to embrace bliss, and leave the world as I'd left it after my travels, in ruins. Or to cut loose the silver chord, to set the world alight by offering up my own divine spark, my chance for escape from suffering. Psychic suicide, that's what it was, nothing less. I'd pour every single joy I ever had into Creation, or it would collapse back into Neal's nightmare. Or I could wring myself dry like a dishrag, and walk the earth dead inside, the neighborhood dog-catcher or the blocked writer in front of an eternally blank and unspoiled page, without even the buzz of sweet Marie in my ear anymore.
What's the difference between having no desire and having desire for nothingness? Neal didn't know; that's why he threw his lot in with late-night poker games and cross-country chases for his own tail. He loved his own Nealness too much to lose it without wanting to take the rest of us with him. He desired nothingness, but thought he had no desire. How could the Dark Dreamer not awaken from his feverish sleep and embrace the poor boy? I wasn't too clear on the distinction between the two choices myself, really, but rational thought isn't the key to answering the irrational question, is it?
For all that it's an absurd concept, Move Under Ground
is a brief little aberration with literary chops, written by an MFA-ish writer who embraces genre fiction and gives it a big sloppy kiss with tongue, then adds tentacles and grue.
That said, I can't say this book really made me want to read On The Road
. Not my style, Daddy-O. But if you are into either Beat prose or Lovecraft, even if the mixing of the two sounds bizarre, then you should certainly check out this unique work. 3.5 stars, which I'd like to bump to 4 but despite my bemusement by the concept and my appreciation of Mamatas's literary stunt-writing, the story ended up being too much a vehicle for the style and the author's cleverness.