Books: Then and Now

Category: Now 

Review: Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

By: Richard E. Gower

Ok, I have to begin this with a quibble. Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh does not use quotation marks for any of the dialogue.

Not a big deal some would say. I checked with family and friends who are readers and the reactions were mixed. My wife, who on average reads about two hundred books a year, had seen this punctuation style used before and said she just had to consciously adjust to it and after she did that it didn’t bother her or take away from the story. A friend who is an editor however gave me a succinct opinion as to what he thought of the practice.  As he added a specific expletive in his comment, I took this to mean that it wasn’t his cup of tea.

An article (not about Adam Sternbergh) in The Guardian  suggests that leaving out the quotation marks when writing dialogue is: “…making an oblique signal of the author’s ambitions.”  It goes on to say that notable writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett ignored typographical conventions in their work.

Notwithstanding that, the absence of quotation marks in Sternbergh’s dialogue bugged me until I realized that perhaps I was just being curmudgeonly and fogyish. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds….”. I then resolved to put aside my bias and concentrated on the story. And so having aired my initial pique about unconventional punctuation, I will say no more here about it.

Because other than that, Near Enemy is a ripping good yarn by a skilled and talented writer who has the ability to yank you into the dark, dystopian world of his protagonist character, Spademan, and keep your disbelief suspended that such a place exists, for three hundred and six pages. But – make no mistake – it is pure escapism. Once you’ve picked it up, be prepared to depart into a shadowy and dangerous place; the realm of unreality. And be prepared to stay there for a while.

I’ve never warmed up to the idea of classifying books too strictly as, for me, it stacks them into subjective predefined boxes; one of the fastest means I’ve seen of stifling imagination and putting the brakes on critical thought. But for those who select their reading according to category, Near Enemy provides oodles to choose from. Depending on which bookstore or library might be shelving it, this book could wind up in cyberpunk mystery, hard-boiled crime noir, science fiction and fantasy or suspense thriller. Purists defending those genres would no doubt differ as to where it should belong, but it contains the biblio-essence of all of the above.

Near Enemy is actually the second book in the Spademan series – the first being Shovel Ready and was written as a sequel. I hadn’t read the first one, and for me that didn’t matter. I was easily able to identify with the characters, and the story, so the book serves equally as a stand-alone.

The big hand, small map view looks like this: Picture a major city, in this case the Big Apple (NYC), that has been left in ruin and chaos by a dirty-bomb detonated at its centre (in this case, Times Square). The city’s core is radioactive and the population that survived has now largely dispersed elsewhere, but for those who have remained it is business as usual and much of that business is predatory, corrupt and debased. Enter Spademan, a hit man and contract killer with a conscience.

In Adam Sternbergh’s dystopian world, the wealthy and privileged can afford to buy escapism (sound familiar?) and tap in mentally to the hedonistic and addictive pleasures in a kind of video-action alternate reality, which he has called the limnosphere or limn for short. The thing is, hackers have found a way in as well. And they can kill people in the limn.

People have called Adam Sternbergh’s writing Chandleresque and compared it to the work of Cormac McCarthy and William Gibson. I agree with all the comparisons. And after two books (one of which I haven’t read) it would hardly be reasonable to suggest that there is any such thing yet as Sternberghesque or Sternbergese, but he does have his own distinctive style.

Part of it is that he is able to create characters who are so obviously caricatures, but that are quirkily humanized. Like his NYPD detective character James Dandy who wears a trenchcoat and Birkenstocks and – in a futuristic world with a fully functional limnosphere – still uses a spiral-bound notebook and a stubby pencil to record his case notes. Detective Dandy also prefers ‘James’ instead of the diminutive ‘Jim’, for obvious reasons. These small touches are the yang to the book’s dystopian yin.

His similies and metaphors have just the right amount of snark in them. As when Spademan meets the NYPD detective for the first time: “The long man stows the shield and makes his introductions. Offers me a handshake that feels like a wet paper bag full of tongue depressors.”

And his description of a post-dirty-bomb NYC rings as purely pitched as a Japanese temple bell.

“But no one bothers with that many locks in New York anymore. City’s safer. Or at least emptier. No end of vacancies. And no one bothers to burgle anymore. Nothing left to burgle. Everything’s picked clean, and anyone who still lives in Manhattan and has something of real value to protect – family, dignity, vintage baseball-card collection – does it with a shotgun, not a deadbolt. So the real problem, for the burglar, isn’t getting in. It’s getting back out.”

Let me be clear about this book. We are talking about the pulpiest of fiction here. But a good read is a good read. If you are looking for adrenalin-inducing escapism, who needs a limnosphere? This is a book that will take a reader’s brain for a ride over Niagara Falls in a birchbark canoe.

Even if stories like these are not to your usual taste in reading, Near Enemy has enough merit about it that you may want to try a little on your tongue. Think of the pleasures you might have passed up if you had been afraid to try a Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a perfectly ripe strawberry or a chocolate truffle for the first time. REG

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