by Gary A. Braunbeck
2004, Leisure Books
Reviewed by Jenise Aminoff
People develop prejudices so easily. I can't count the number of times I've argued with a friend who thinks that all fantasy is trash because the first book he read was a Piers Anthony novel, or the person who won't read science fiction because she thinks it's all like Star Trek. I had a friend who had an irrational prejudice against authors whose last names are first names. I almost had to tie him down and read Dune to him. But I'm every bit as bad. You see, I don't like horror.
Okay, I liked Carrie, but I found the rest of Stephen King depressingly predictable. I've tried Raymond Feist and hated it. I sort of liked Poppy Z. Brite for the pop-culture references, but other than that, I had classified myself as someone who just doesn't like horror.
But all those people who say they don't like scifi or fantasy will eventually own up to having read something that they liked, something by LeGuin or Stephenson. Even that friend of mine finally admitted that he reads Philip K. Dick. As for me, I read Gary Braunbeck.
Braunbeck writes with a transparency that's rare in any genre. On top of that, he solves the suspension-of-disbelief problem in the most original way I've ever seen: he challenges the consensual reality.
"Don't you see how easy it can be to use consensual reality against a child? To take a first smile, a first kiss, a first laugh, and make them seem unacceptable? ...I think about the life you had as a child, and the life I had, and I realize that... we were trained to see the same world our parents saw, all right."
This is only the first hint that Robert Londrigan is given that reality, as he knows it, might not actually be the true face of the universe, that perhaps it is only one paradigm among many for how the universe works. The Greeks had a slightly different paradigm. They thought that there were two types of time: chronos, the linear, discrete time that you and I believe in and experience every day, and a more transitive, eternal form of time, kairos, in which everything that has ever existed continues to exist, forever.
Londrigan, a news anchor with a career that is about to hit the big time, had never questioned his view of reality until his wife Denise, 6 months pregnant, goes into premature labor on Halloween and dies, their daughter horribly deformed and stillborn. That night, in the hospital morgue, Londrigan gets his first taste of kairos when his daughter, organs and skin removed for transplants, begins to breathe, and his dead wife sits up and nurses the baby, and for one eternal moment, they are a family. Then, as he lets them go, as they return to chronos time, he is confronted by a man whose face is so broken and deformed that Londrigan assumes he must be wearing a mask. Until the intruder shows him a picture of other children, also terribly deformed. The intruder beats Londrigan into unconsciousness, and when he awakes, the body of his daughter is gone.
And then things start to get weird.
After all, in a reality where everything continues to exist, forever, no one really ever dies, not Londrigan's dog, nor his high school sweetheart killed in a car accident, not even his stillborn daughter. In kairos time, she can live, grow, mature. So, too, can all the misshapen, abused, and abandoned children of the world. They have been gathered with love into thirteen secret strongholds, places where the mountain opens up, and kept alive and happy in kairos time by two guardian angels. One is Rael, the man with the broken face who is known in yet another legend as the Pied Piper. The other is Denise, Londrigan's wife, decended from angels and conceived specifically to assist Rael in protecting the unwanted and unloved children of the world. Without her, Rael is not strong enough to keep out the encroaching reality of chronos, and the children begin to sicken and die. But now Denise is dead ... or is she?
"The thing is, dude, anything can happen in kairos if you know wha'cher doin'! It's like-okay, y'ever see one of them little kids, right, and they're talking to their 'imaginary' frien'? Just 'cause you can't seen that frien' don't mean it ain't there, know what I'm sayin'? But if you, like, don' got no idea how to use kairos, you could make yourself crazy in a New York minute."
Bit by bit, Rael and his children work to shift Londrigan out of his ingrained sense of reality and into the kairos reality. Along the way, Londrigan will meet again every woman he has ever loved, and meet for the first time the woman he married. And he will learn to love the children his reality had abandoned, tortured and left for dead.
The deeply emotional quality of Braunbeck's work pulls you in, makes it almost impossible for you not to sympathize with his characters. Braunbeck combines brutal, horrific events and incredible tenderness in his character's reactions. As Londrigan sheds his consensual reality for another, he also sheds all that he hates about himself: his vanity, his self-centered ambitions, and his indifference to those around him. In a scene on a bus in which Londrigan confronts a couple of gang members, he confesses his indifference to a woman he has never met.
"I can't help but think now that, ever since [my wife] died, I've finally turned into the kind of man who could make her happy, who could return her affection in equal measure, who could listen to her and understand her needs and want to do something to please her, see? Only to please her, not to shut her up about something or make her happy long enough to get what I want out of her...."
This scene brought me to tears, as did several other scenes in the novel. There were also a couple of scenes that just plain gave me the creeps -- I mean hairs-on-end, chill-down-the-spine, what's-that-in-the-corner-of-my-eye kind of creeps. And lest I forget, be warned that there are some extremely graphic passages in this book that will be difficult reading for the faint of stomach, but none of these are gratuitous gore.
So precious it's painful, so terrible it's glorious, this novel should not be missed. Braunbeck is not very well known -- yet. Get to know him and his work now, so that you can tell people you were reading Braunbeck before Braunbeck was cool.