Friday, September 02, 2005

On a Bender: The Art of Getting Bent by M. Sahm


The Art of Getting Bent is not a book for the grammar-Nazi or the frustrated proof-reader. If you can't read e.e. cummings without wincing and pulling out a mental blue pencil, leave this book on the shelf. With frequently-awkward phrasing (verging on the comical), sometimes-dicey word choices (weary for wary, poignant instead of pertinent), the novel reveals an author who struggles with the tense of verbs and number-agreement of pronouns.

...Are they all gone?

Okay, now that the blue-haired librarians have left the room, I'll let you in on a little secret: This is a great story! Mark Sahm started out to create The Art of Getting Bent as a graphic novel. It shows. The action is kick-ass and relevant, the pacing is perfect, and the narrative style is reminiscent of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, or perhaps John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer.

Yes, on nearly every page there is a grammar-wince lying in wait for your inner school-marm. Sure, some of the name choices (Taco Hell, StarPhücks coffee, an antagonist named Tagonist, for phücks' sake!) make it hard to stay immersed in the text. But the story! The story carries you along.

The main character of Sahm's story is a demi-lizard named Serico, living in a post-apocalyptic city. The world has been devastated by a disease called CXD, a horror of fatal infection against which man has found only two defenses. If one is wealthy enough, one can become a Cypure, living inside a powered suit of brilliant color that prevents contact with the contagion. Cypures have thus become an identifiable elite in this Manhattan-like place, Vitellius City, the Big Egg.

Far more numerous are those whose resources were more limited. These people chose instead to have their DNA inextricably merged with that of an animal, because that makes their bodies immune to CXD. The Tag-B drug that accomplishes this merging also gives each Splice some of the characteristics of the animal—hence, Serico, whose chameleon eyes and skin reveal the lizard DNA he received.

Serico, we learn early, has a demon riding him. He works as a DJ in a Splice club, but he can only perform well when he's half-way along on a bender. For Serico, the art of his music requires that he master the art of getting bent just enough to let his brilliance loose. Amy, an owl-child martial arts master, has her own demons, born when her father died of CXD. She uses her anger to keep her survival skills honed. It doesn't pay to get bent out of shape—but Amy's found a way to make the martial art of getting bent just far enough pay off for her.

They're innocently heading for a confrontation with two entities who could lay waste to all their art: a jug of jungle rum with the label "Jugo del Diablo," and the convicted creator of the CXD plague, Tiberius Tagonist. Then there's Dr. Def Mechlin, a shadowy character whose presence spans the story from 1979 to 2020, the present day.

In the cold streets of Vitellius City in 2020, Cypures are being murdered. Their lifeless bodies are mangled and torn, and from each one, the power-pack is stolen (a Federal offense in itself). Is Tagonist killing the Cypures, trying to complete the job he started in 2005? Or is Mechlin the source of the Big Egg's current troubles? Without planning it, Serico and Amy will become embroiled in this struggle, as a result of practicing their art.

The story is supported and guided by street-signs along its path. Each chapter is headed by a graphic title, named like a station on a commuter train: Euston, Fuencarral, Gran Via, Opernplatz, Pacific, Vine. Each has an official-looking ID number, plus an "alternate designation" and "condition." These read poetically together like a traditional chapter sub-head from a Victorian novel, "Never tickle a fickle kitty / burned by the winds of change," is for Fuencarral. At Vine: "I eat the inevitable ounce of honesty / fresh out of the foil wrapper."

Other graphics are scattered sparsely through the book, markers left over from the novel's earlier incarnation. Serico's chameleon eye looks out from several pages—Sahm's book has been through its own Splice.

The result is wonderful.

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