For a guy sometimes compared to Philip K. Dick, Alex Irvine took his time in getting around to writing about the future. His first three literary novels (in addition to being a former staff writer and present freelancer for the Portland Phoenix, he has written 14 books of varying types) made the past magical: Aztec mysticism infiltrating PT Barnum's New York; the Holy Grail giving life to Josh Gibson's Negro Leagues; the golem archetype stalking Ford's war-time Detroit. For his newest effort, Buyout, he brings Raymond Chandler's 1940s LA 100 years into the future, a logical extension of today's burgeoning social-network/surveillance state.
The central conceit, however, gets at the most ancient of human dilemmas: What value do we place on human life? Men negotiate dowries for the responsibility of a woman's life. The US government pays the families of dead Afghan civilians. A negligent doctor uses insurance to pay for a life left on the operating table.
In Irvine's future, protagonist Martin Kindred (his last name pointing to the exploration of family the novel will eventually become) has been hired to pay prisoners money, in exchange for the remaining years in their lives-without-parole. His company, Nautilus, essentially proposes, "Take the needle and you can disburse $5 million to the family of the person you murdered, or your old high school, or your mom. Whomever." As both private-prison operator and insurance company, Nautilus wins by paying less in the lump sums than it would cost to house and feed the inmates.
Like any good genre fiction, Irvine's novel operates well beyond the subtly inserted futuristic contraptions and global-warming-caused chaos of its setting. In fact, this future is most remarkable for how similar it seems. It's just that the cell phones have been souped up, your car windshield is a computer screen that can be hijacked with animated avatars, and LA has a subway. Big deal.
"The future we bought into was great until we lived long enough to discover that at some point, the future becomes the present, and the fact that it was once the future doesn't mean that it won't be all fucked up once it arrives." That's Walt Dangerfield, LA's most popular podcaster and a Greek chorus whom Irvine uses to get off some great lines (the book bursts with aphorisms), setting up a cynical warmth that acts as the story's heart.
Heart, though, is what Martin lacks, subsumed by his punishing logic. He doesn't have the heart to be sickened by himself. He doesn't have the heart to listen to the people who care about him, including best friend and mentor Charlie, a hard-boiled Philip Marlowe if there ever was one. And like Marlowe, Charlie lets people ruin themselves just enough to bail them out of any real trouble.
While we're busy hearing about the dollar amounts ascribed to estimated lifespans, the real story here asks what you're willing to actually do for another person. (Speaking of the real story, don't read the back of the book's jacket before you dive in. It ruins the first plot twist, which takes a while to come about.) Will you abandon reason? Will you make yourself a hypocrite? "How many people are we?" Charlie wonders. Is it still possible to be yourself when you're constantly constructing a new you every day for a society that sees everything you do?
As narrator, Irvine constructs an interesting polyphony where we're privy to the internal thoughts of his primary characters, but he doesn't reach nearly far enough. What are the bad guys' motivations? Maybe he can't construct the narrative without hiding the peculiars of "who benefits," but it feels like a cop-out. Aren't their decisions equally interesting? Why does a pro-lifer blow up a clinic, killing people along the way? Why do cops go bad? Why are some people so greedy they value money over human life?
Irvine has plenty to say on these topics, but he offers caricatures that are in stark contrast to his very human good guys. While he expertly manipulates the readers' sympathies and moral quandaries, it's sometimes too easy to see him moving the pieces.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
ALEXANDER C. IRVINE | reads from Buyout | Del Ray | 319 pages | $14 | and discusses "What's Your Life Worth?" at the Maine Festival of the Book | April 4 @ 12:30 pm | University of Southern Maine, Abromson Center, Bedford St, Portland | Free | 207.871.9100