The protagonist wakes up, not knowing where he is or what his name is. He has some sort of disability or injury, often a horrendous one, and he is surrounded by strangers who seem bent on tormenting him. This sort of plot has been standard in literature from fantasy to SF to horror since Gulliver’s Travels, through modern classics such as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. (And more recently in Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three.) It’s an effective literary and often satiric way of writing about any number of societal issues and existential dilemmas.
Brian Evenson takes it up to great effect in his latest novel Immobility. It’s a simple tale on the surface. Our protagonist comes to consciousness as he is being revived from cryogenic slumber. His awakening is not nearly as painless and rapid as that of more fortunate characters in many SF stories that use this trope; he coughs, gags, writhes in agony, vomits and drools, and discovers that he is paralyzed from the waist down. He doesn’t know who or where he is. He attacks the technician who woke him because the man plays word games with him instead of telling him his name.
Eventually Horkai (that’s his name, or so they say) is told why he was revived. He is to go on a mission for this strange community, huddled in a sprawling underground compound in a desolate post-apocalyptic world. The community, led by one called Rasmus, has a creepy, cultish vibe, but Horkai agrees to the mission because … he’s not sure why. He is to retrieve a frozen cylinder containing some kind of seed from another community that stole it from Rasmus and his folks. He is to be carried by two huge, odd men referred to as mules. Oh, and he has a disease that will cause the crippling in his legs to spread to his whole body if he doesn’t get regular and excruciating shots in his spine.
So Horkai sets off on his odyssey across a blasted, radioactive wasteland. His story does indeed have much in common with Gulliver’s, and with Odysseus’s, if their stories were written by Beckett or Sartre or Kafka. It’s a nightmarish journey across a hellish landscape to an unclear destination for a murky purpose with mysterious, near-mute companions.
As he crosses through the remains of a city and its suburbs toward the nearby mountains, it becomes clear to the reader that this is Salt Lake City and its environs, following a “Kollaps” that was probably a nuclear detonation about 30 years before the action in the novel. At that point it becomes tempting to read Immobility as a gleefully dark parable of Mormonism, as Horkai stumbles from the arms of one bizarre survivor cult to another in the arms of twin golems who describe their community as a “hive.” Evenson himself is a former Mormon who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its Brigham Young University after university officials censured – and attempted to censor – him because a student complained about the violence in one of his books.
That’s certainly one valid reading, but Immobility is both more and less than that. It’s a brilliantly stark dystopian fantasy, a dark science-fiction tale of one possible near-future of our country and world, a meditation on the meaning of community, religion and the individual’s place in society, and a gripping horror story that wouldn’t be out of place as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Particularly for the black and cruel twist that faces Horkai when he reaches what he thinks is the end of his mission.
A word about the editing. I nearly quit reading this book when I encountered the verb “unthawed” when it should have been “thawed” twice in the early chapters. I persuaded myself to continue on the theory that Horkai’s use of it would turn out to have some role to play in the plot. Sadly, it didn’t. There’s no excuse for such shoddy editing by a major house.
But I’m glad I read Immobility. It’s a bleak philosophical meditation masquerading as a delightfully twisted horror tale.