By Danger Slater
Fungasm Press, 2019
Reviewed by Gordon B. White
Impossible James, Danger Slater’s latest novel, is a book about the tensions of finding meaning in an absurd world, about tensions that rupture into paradoxes. It’s about growing larger, but also becoming smaller. It’s about fighting a system, but surrendering to it. It’s about creating a legacy and destroying history in the process. It’s also funny, gross, bizarre, and even a little touching. It’s a trip.
What is Impossible James about? The plot is simplicity itself: James Watson (soon to be James Watson, “Sr.”) is diagnosed with a malignant “black spot” in his brain that will kill him … in fifty years or so. Driven to despair, he loses his job at the multinational conglomerate Motherlove, burns his belongings, and gets a screwdriver through the brain which both pins the black spot in place and sparks his creativity such that he can clone himself through a very disgusting process and, eventually, cure death.
As James Sr. grows less and less human, his first clone, James Watson Jr., narrates the story from the end of the world, alternating between his father’s history and the imminent collapse of the universe beneath a plague known as the Gray Tide. Got it? Good.
While the above description should make it clear this is a fine and pulpy story, Slater has a way of writing that belies the danger of his underlying ideas. The plot careens forward and the writing is almost always conversational and, sometimes, willing to derail its own narrative and draw attention to the mechanics of the novelistic structure. The cumulative effect is a story told by a friend, holding on to your arm and shaking you at the good parts. To focus on just the presentation, though, hides the real heart of Impossible James.
Impossible James bears the subtitle “A book about death,” and this is no joke. At every moment, the specter of futility and the void hangs over the proceedings. It has thematic overlays of capitalism, climate catastrophe, existential dread and more. None of them fit completely, but they do so in a way that evokes the unease that all of them do. It’s about setting up Impossible Goals and Impossible Defenses, but being unable to escape the Impossible End. It’s about giving oneself to the world, but also the sheer egotism that doing so takes.
It’s a very strange book about self-centered sacrifice and catastrophes, and the human moments in the face of both, which are by turns poignant and useless. It’s a book about frustration and how as one’s goals explode, one becomes smaller and smaller. It’s about the selfishness of creating a life filled with doubt, but also the catastrophe of abandoning that doubt — and how that doubt which may be the only thing keeping us in check, or at least placated.
Because it’s that sense of doubt — that question of “What’s it all for?” — that might be keeping us from turning into unrestrained sociopaths. In fact, by abandoning that doubt, James Sr. becomes both a society and a pathology in himself. What’s that mean? Well, you’ll have to read it to see.
But all of this is the paradox of Impossible James: a way to balance these warring impulses of the insignificant and the psychotically grand; the crippling doubt against the destructive untethering. And in the end … well, James Watson Jr. has to make a decision. It’s a decision we all have to make, although it isn’t easy to make and even harder to tell if the decision is the one that’s “right.”
With Impossible James, Danger Slater continues slipping his readers existential poison pills beneath a shiny, gleefully gruesome candy coating. By turns humorous, horrifying, and even heartbreaking, Impossible James struggles to make sense of a modern world collapsing under its own bloat and the human but absurd drive to create — be it meaning, purpose, art — in the face of that catastrophe. Is it impossible? No, but it’s Impossible James.