Thursday, November 1, 2012

Microreview [Novel]: Mr. Blank

The Meat

In this review of Mr. Blank, the term “fun romp” will not be used. In fact, I’m going to stay away from the word “fun” entirely.

As a teen I couldn’t get enough of conspiracy theories. Of course, it was a simpler time. Oliver Stone and X Files, the Loompanics catalog and Feral House’s very existence, the Clinton Administration and the internets: the nineties were a good time for cabals, secret histories, and cattle mutilation. I’m not sure that I bought a single conspiracy – other than maybe the Kennedy assassination, the Action Comics #1 of modern conspiracy theories – but I immensely enjoyed reading these cheap trade paperbacks that promised to uncover age old secrets about Jesus’ kids and decode the dollar bill.

Justin Robinson’s Mr. Blank is a comedic roman noir about conspiracies, part Chandler, part Vonnegut, part von Däniken. Actually, it’s a novel about conspirators. More to the point, it’s about the low-level Joes that conspirators hire to do the shit work of their nefarious plots – the working schlubs who are charged with during the grunt work necessary for world domination or waking the Old Gods. Someone has to do take the Holy Grail to FedEx or give Lee Harvery Oswald’s clone a ride to the dentist.

The novel’s hero is just such a nameless dude. He’s a Mason, a Templar, and a Satanist, as well as a neophyte of, henchman for, and errand boy to a number of other secret societies you’ve never heard of. He’s the man you call when you need a mysterious object dropped off in Encino – or when an equally mysterious object needs picking up in Culver City. It’s good work if you can find it. And if you can decipher certain Craigslist ads correctly.

Fortunately, Mr. Blank’s plot is not really that important. (Fortunate for me because I am really bad at summarizing.) There’s a couple of stolen mythical artifacts, warring cults, assassination plots, a plus-sized model, and more spooks/cultists/anorexics than…something. But these themes, tropes, and gimmicks are all an excuse for the jokes.

The book is generally funny. Robinson, as if he were Dashiel Hammet’s annoying kid brother, sardonically mimics the best of hardboiled crime writing: “At first glance, she looked fifteen. Second glance aged her five years, third a couple more. She always had a look on her face like she disapproved of everything she could see, and was imagining a few more things to be pissed off with.” Nice.

Robinson’s at his best when he’s poking fun out his hometown, Los Angeles:
  • “There are people in LA who spend their entire lives avoiding the 405.” “Burbank existed entirely for the purpose of destroying any lingering belief that the world was a beautiful place.”
  • “‘You have to just make a decision. Do you want to be famous and dead, or unknown and alive?’ I expected her to have to think about it. After all, she was in LA.”
  • “It looked like old LA to me, a place where a bot player had probably dies in the ‘40s and was a stop on one of the lower-rent tours.”
Jokes. This book is full of them. And if Mystery Science Theater 3000 taught us anything, it’s that the more jokes one makes, the greater the likelihood for failure. There are indeed plenty of bad jokes in Mr. Blank. Some of them are even embarrassing. Fortunately, there are some damn funny ones as well.

The plot of Mr. Blank is fairly incidental. In fact, it’s entirely incidental, little more than an excuse to introduce another conspiracy, another silly character, or simply to make a trip to the Griffith Observatory or the San Fernando Valley. Does it matter that the internet has become sentient and has been given a body by its worshippers? Only to the extent that it makes for a funny and fairly creepy scene. Though the plot’s relative irrelevance was not overall too much of a drawback, it began to wear toward the end of the book. I didn’t expect or want to care about anyone in the book, but somewhere around page 270 I truly stopped caring. The book’s denouement would have delightfully underwhelming and anticlimactic assuming that I had been required to pay attention to the pages that preceded it.

Had this been one of those “serious” novels that the New York Times or an attractive Latina comparative lit doctoral candidate insist I read, I would have been pissed. But this isn’t a book about upper middle class folks with problems and relationships. It’s a silly book about the silly conspiracies that silly people believe. And as such, it was almost entirely successful, despite all the bad jokes.

All in all, Mr. Blank was a fun read. Dammit.

The Math

Objective score: 7/10

Bonus points: +1 for reminding me of Loompanics; +1 for good jokes

Penalties: -1 for bad jokes

Nerd coefficient: 8/10

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