Feb 4, 2012

Monkey droppings - Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess

Today, the monkey puts on his spelunking gear and slowly lowers himself into the depths of another's psychosis.

Going really deep into this one. I can see stalactites hanging from the roof of his ego. And there's bat guano everywhere.

Pontypool Changes Everything (ECW Press, 1998: Chizine, 2010)
by Tony Burgess

At a breakfast table in Caesarea a couple sits across from each other. Their mouths are open and liver coloured. She tries to lick her bottom lip but misses, catching her tongue in the slippery well of skin at the base of her gums. The tongue pushes to a point in this pocket until the O of her lips reaches its limit and the tongue springs out, releasing a full pouch of liquid down her chin. Her husband mimics this, but he extends his tongue directly through the O, clearing its edges, missing the point.
Like all the other zombies, the only expression that these two can achieve is one of supernatural failure. Like gargoyles, they frown in exhausted masks of hopelessness. Her eyes rise into the bridge of her nose and tunnel up beneath her brow; the lashes have fallen into the tails of goldfish that fan across her cheeks. His eyes are the same, but for heavier lower lids that scoop out like wading pools, vividly red and beating with vulnerable membrane.
I know Tony Burgess. I like Tony Burgess. He's a good guy, easy to approach. Affable, even.

But I'd never want to be trapped inside his mind.

Burgess is one of the preeminent Canadian masters of literary horror, that vague subset of the horror genre where the story is told just too damn well to be relegated to (he writes with a sniff of derision) mere "horror." Dean Koontz has never even seen literary horror from his perch (nor do I believe he knows of its existence). Stephen King stops by on occasion (although it's been a while). Clive Barker visits frequently. Burgess has his own gazebo on the lawn, where he sits sipping absinthe from a silver cup.


Burgess's specialty is dropping insanity into the most mundane of surroundings. Basing many of his works in smalltown Ontario, Burgess excels at delving into that madness that peeks out the corners of everybody's eyes. In People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, its the gas jockey who decides that arbitrary murder is the best way to go. In Ravenna Gets, the populace of Ravenna decides en masse to destroy the populace of nearby Collingwood. In Idaho Winter (his first YA book), a young boy goes on a rampage after learning he's a character in a book.

Pontypool Changes Everything (hereinafter PCE) is ostensibly a zombie novel, yet relegating it to that qualification does it as much a disservice as assuming Moby Dick to be a book about whaling, Naked Lunch to be about drugs, and To Kill a Mockingbird to be about racism. The labels are superficially correct, but completely missing the point.

The plot of PCE defies easy summation; like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive — and if there are any two artists whose combined talents would result in the freakiest , most disturbing story ever put to film, it's these two PCE weaves through reality and fantasy without distinction between the two, physically pushing at the reader's concepts of linear narrative as dreamlike imagery takes hold. Make no mistake, reading Tony Burgess takes effort, an effort many people will be unwilling to take (wimps). Leave them to their safe little zones, their Bentley Littles and Robin Cooks; yeah, I'm not a fan. There is no safe ground in Burgessland. Everything shifts, and if you think you're safe and steady, the world is about to drop out from beneath you. His words are slivers beneath your fingertips, burrowing in and refusing to budge.

Burgess's zombies are not the now-standard grabby and bitey undead of innumerable b-grade movies (although, to be fair, they do grab and bite on occasion). To start, the virus is not transmitted by blood, or saliva, or radiation, but through language:
The virus had hid silently for decades up in the roofs of adjectives, its little paws growing sensitive, first to the modifications performed there: then, sensing something more concrete pulling at a distance, the virus jumped into paradigms. It was unable to reach the interior working of the paradigm, however, due to its own disappearance near the core. The viruses bit wildly at the exterior shimmer of the paradigms, jamming selection with pointed double fangs. A terrible squealing ripped beneath the surface of the paradigms as they were destroyed. The shattered structure automatically redistributed its contents along syntagma, smuggling vertical mobiles across horizontal ropes. What was in the air had to travel as ground and the virus sauntered right into these new spaces, taking them over. Radical spaces evolved to compensate. Negative space became a fortune telling device. Positive space arched its back painfully, now pocked horribly by the frenzied migration of vehicles into the ground.
The plague first manifests itself in the infected person as a type of déjà vu, with an accompanying aphasia. Everything that happened presented itself as already happened. This infinitely complicated things. For as soon as the person adjusted, understanding that this was merely a symptom of the plague, his or her understanding slipped backward into the already happened. Each realization had to be doubled against itself into becoming understood next: an impossible therapy to maintain. The present tense was a slippery slope to anyone in remission. The "now" became a deepening lesion, and from it rose the smell of this new sickness.
There are two sections to PCE: in the first, "Autobiography," we follow a man who may or may not become a zombie himself stumble through the beginnings of a plague, intent on rescuing the newborn son he's never met. His reality mingles with detached flights of hallucination, and by the end, I'm not even sure there was a son. The second section, "Novel," tells the story of the zombie plague itself, and how it begins to affect the people of Ontario.
On September 7 strange new edicts are passed in the Ontario legislature with more hand-washing than wringing. and by late afternoon the instructions are handed over to heavily armed teams. They are directed to exercise maximum force immediately. To combat contagion all form of communication is banned. Speaking, listening, reading, even sign language are punishable at the brute discretion of Ontario's own licensed assassins. Citizens are instructed to stay at home and communicate only through nods or shakes of the head.
This is only a brief summary, as, like Lynch at his most mind-bending, Burgess resists a traditional narrative structure in favour of scenes that insinuate themselves into your medulla, and images that by turns fascinate and horrify. Other characters flit about, their importance to the story nebulous at best. One character may or may not be a ghost, or demon, or angel. Two children flee their parents and hide in an abandoned cabin, whereupon they commence to live an existence that would surely get the book summarily banned should those with weak temperaments and even weaker grasps of art versus reality ever read the book (not much chance there).

Sometimes, it's hard to even justify what you are reading as anything more than being weird for weird's sake (not that there's anything wrong with that). Yet even if PCE were to be thoughtlessly shoved into the 'bizarro' genre of literature — a serious literary genre that combines satire and absurdism with non-traditional narratives and crazy-weird plot devices: while it has a fan in sci-fi/fantasy grand master Michael Moorcock, whose acclaimed Jerry Cornelius series could be classified as bizarro, the genre is usually populated with titles such as The Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, Gigantic Death Worm, Squidpulp Blues, and Unicorn Knife Fight — it would still stand head and shoulders above its peers. Burgess is a fine writer, and his prose oozes menace while following an inner logic that virtually demands repeated readings.

Burgess is never going to be to everyone's taste; like I said, he demands some work on the part of the reader, like most artists do. If your taste leans toward a relatively undemanding horror where vampires sparkle and werewolves solve crimes, stay away; if you've replayed Lost Highway more time than you can count, wondering how Bill Pullman transmogrified into Balthazar Getty, you'll undoubtedly love Pontypool.

Verdict: The Monkey Loves, Although His Head Hurts a Bit

P.S. Bruce McDonald, with Burgess as Screenwriter, produced a film version of Pontypool which while an utterly fabulous flick, grim and dark, one of the best zombie films of the past decade — takes serious liberties with the text. I advise reading one and watching the other, but recognize beforehand that they are markedly different monsters.

1 comment:

Medea said...

I saw the film and had no idea there was a book. It was frightening though, and I tend to be more frightened by books, so I don't know if I have the nerve to try this! Sounds fascinating though.

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