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THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
by Nathan Larson
Akashic Books, May 2015
$15.95
ISBN: 1617753394


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

And so we come to the final volume in Nathan Larson's edgy, spectacular, dystopian trilogy narrated by a man called Dewey Decimal who inhabits Manhattan's 42nd St Library and works on restoring what he can of the books left in its stacks after someone got to work on them with a flamethrower. Two years have passed since the "Valentine's Occurrence," a catastrophe that left the city with less than half its population, a fatally wounded infrastructure, and a collection of streets and landmarks more present in memory than in reality.

Dewey is, I suppose, something of cyborg. A former Bronx street kid turned soldier, damaged in one or another of America's desert adventures, he wound up, as far as he can remember, in a military hospital where he was experimentally rejigged by army surgeons. They left him with a prosthetic hand, a mysterious implant in his neck, and a working knowledge of an array of languages, including Arabic, various Korean dialects, and very serviceable Mandarin and Cantonese. His own native language, a tense, flexible, inventive mixture of hipster Bronx, Harlem jive, and the English of poets and madmen, he never lost. They also provided him with an addiction to mysterious hexagonal pills and to what he invariably calls Purell . What they did not leave him was an intact memory or any clear idea of who he is supposed to be working for or why.

He was employed by a corrupt DA in the first installment, who was followed by a corrupt Senator in volume two, and he thinks he has also worked for Cyna-corp, a Blackwater avatar currently cleaning up in the ravaged city. This time round, the Senator is back and sends Dewey off on a dubious mission warning their impending eviction to a group of non-combatant shell-shocked survivors of the catastrophe who have set up tents in Central Park and just want to be left alone. He is also supposed to take charge of a brother and sister, twins, and heirs to the royal House of Saud, and see them safely into New York.

But, frankly, it has never been the plot that has been the chief draw to these books, littered though they are with incident and corpses. It is the narrator, his driving prose, his struggles against the darkness, that makes them impossible to put down. And it is his vivid evocation of a city in ruins. The actual city is only marginally habitable, the air so polluted that it is only barely breathable, the streets in ruins, the subways silent and running with rats. Though the narrator is terrified of contagion and bathes himself compulsively in Purell , he accepts what has occurred and never mourns what was. Or more precisely, throughout most of the three volumes, the city he sees is an amalgam of what is and what Dewey fondly remembers. But as his memory begins to return, he is devastated to realize that:

what I do see: it's not my city. The space through which I move. I've been rendered blind by nostalgia. Allowed to see only what once was. In the empty lots, phantom shapes to which I ascribe meaning.

But there is no meaning left here. It's not a city at all.

If there is no meaning left in the city, then what about the narrator's vocation to restore order to the 42nd Street library, to recover the most he can of what civilized humans have written of themselves? To what end would he proceed through the 300s (social science) and on to language itself (400s)?

The answer to that stares Dewey Decimal in the face and if he is right about that, our loss is even greater than is his. The book drives forward to an inevitable conclusion that is still wholly shocking.

In all honesty, if you have not read the previous volumes in the trilogy, I cannot recommend you begin here. Go back to the beginning, read them in order, admire the growth in the central character, be swept up in the details of a city struggling not to die, and mourn the loss of what we have and might so lightly throw away. But if you can't do that, read this one anyway. You won't regret it.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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