And we will have ruined a beautiful thing for the sake of a security which we cannot have. (p. 227)
the world shall know thee as a blur and as a sign upon the heavens, as a hope and an earnest of good things. (p. 3)
Not so very long ago, superheroes dwelt in their natural habitat of comic book shops—sorted into cardboard boxes or stacked onto metal shelves—with the very occasional migration into cinemas or, more rarely, onto television. However, in the last two decades or so, superheroes have evolved into a more robust, self-aware genre, propagating into endless films, countless series, and even, in the last few years, into novels. These novels generally divide into two, if not opposing, then at least very different, camps. There's the literal adaptations of the superhero genre, such as Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible (2007) and Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century (2013), both featuring heroes and villains blessed, and cursed, with actual superpowers. And then there are the more literary than literal adaptations, such as Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, published back at the turn of the millennium, which extends the language and metaphorical underpinnings of paneled heroes into the everyday lives of its mild-mannered, ordinary characters such that the novel is dressed in the bright raiments of superheroes, but they don’t really exist, and so their magical superpowers do not impinge upon the more or less realistic tone of the narrative—that magical golem in Kavalier and Clay notwithstanding.
And then, there's a book like Tigerman by Nick Harkaway, which freely steps into and out of the panels of comics, letting the literature of superheroes (one of rigid boxes, confused power, and shaken morality) inform the characters, structure, and theme of the narrative—even going so far as to have the main character don a costume, solve mysteries, and fight crime—while still maintaining a large amount of realism. Because the world of his novel is recognizably our own, in which there are no superheroes and no superpowers, only the stories we tell about them. And yet the realism in Tigerman comes off a bit shaky, as well, because while there may be no laser-beam eyes or women summoning thunder, there are menacing chemical cloud discharges from beneath the island on which the book is set; shadowy intrigues and mysterious characters; allies and betrayals; boy wonders; secret identities; and the very real possibility that the world, in order to save itself from said island's menacing chemical cloud discharges, might simply bomb the island out of existence.
Shock and awe turned up to eleven, a mini-apocalypse.
In his first two novels, The Gone-Away World (2008) and Angelmaker (2012), Nick Harkaway evinced a predilection, and skill, for the gleeful plunder and bashing together of, more or less, every genre ever invented. In The Gone-Away World, he rollicked through a post-apocalyptic-SF-horror-romance-fantasy-kung-fu epic, and in Angelmaker, he thoughtfully tromped through a steampunk adventure, with dashes of crime, romance, mechanical bee doom, and family drama. What Harkaway does well in all this bashing and smashing, is to combine his ecstatic world-building with an equally ecstatic empathy for his characters, whether they be larger-than-life superheroes, or middle-aged, somewhat stereotypically reserved British sergeants who, despite their best efforts, end up becoming something not unlike a superhero.
In Tigerman, we have this latter story in Lester Ferris, a middle-aged and, yes, somewhat stereotypically reserved British sergeant who lives and works in Brighton House, a mostly empty consular building located on the previously mentioned about-to-be-blown-up-island of Mancreu. Shuttered offices and dim, sheeted ballrooms fill Brighton House, in much the way, one gathers, that inside of Lester Ferris whole wings of emotions, while probably quite beautiful and entirely functional, have not lately been put much to use. Lester's closest friend on the island is a young boy, somewhere between twelve and sixteen, who calls himself Robin. The boy is very much in love with everything, but, in particular, James Bond, comic books, and superheroes. He, to Lester's knowledge, spends most of his time reading comics in a secret volcano lair and tells stories of Bad Jack, a vague, shadowy figure of local legend. The sergeant wishes very much to adopt the boy, but he's too afraid to ask anything of Robin's past, for fear that the boy, while seemingly all alone in the world, might have a mother or father or sister or uncle with a stronger claim to his love than Lester’s. When Robin asks him, though, to become a superhero and save his home, how can the sergeant say no? It is so much easier, he finds, to wear a mask and fight crime than to be naked in his love.
The island, Mancreu, as happens sometimes with fictional islands, sits on top of a colony of superbugs—created by decades of chemical dumping—which, from time to time, emit discharges of gaseous, cloud-like formations that cause anything from blindness to green skin to bouts of dancing amnesia. After one cloud drifted over into the Maldives, the world decided the chasm from which the clouds emerged must "be cleansed" and Mancreu "was made the first ever UNO-WHO Interventional Sacrifice Zone" (p. 29), which was a fancy way of saying that the world decided for the best of everyone (everyone being people not on Mancreu) the entire island would be blown to bits, never mind whether or not that would actually work. It's the mask of security the world's after, a mask which hides the terror more than defeats it.
Lester, along with many other somewhat stereotypically cast members of the world's military and scientific citizenry (Japanese scientists, guffawing Americans, nefarious Ukranians, a shadowy international fleet), have descended on Mancreu in order to oversee, and exploit, its last days. The general view of the world's governments being that so long as Mancreu sits on the brink of apocalypse, the laws of the world around it are, more or less, on pause. In the waters around Mancreu, therefore, a fleet of ships appears, between which a network of smuggling and rendition and generally shady-type businesses spring up.
For Harkaway, Mancreu serves as a compact version of the confused power and shaky morality that drove and grew from colonization, and which still drive and grow in the war on terror. In the backstory, of a Franco-Dutch chemical company dumping its waste into the fresh springs of Mancreu, there's something of the way that the righteous ridiculousness of so much of the West's colonizing madness laid the groundwork, as it were, for the transforming horrors that are discharged in the present. As well, in the world's edict to eradicate Mancreu, the source if not the cause of the discharges, and the gathering of the shadowy international fleet in the waters around Mancreu to exploit the non-status of the island, there's something of the manner in which the U.S. and its allies have so very often of late taken overwhelmingly violent aim at the location of terror rather than the seeds of it, all the while happily allowing the sense of terror to mask their own monstrous deeds (indiscriminate data mining, torture, execution drones, etc.).
While the above may sound ecstatic, Tigerman is decidedly un-ecstatic compared to Harkaway's previous novels. Here he seems happily content to focus less on pyrotechnics (well, somewhat less, there is still the nigh island apocalypse and the occasional explosion or pow! punch) and more on the evolving relationships of right and wrong and love and hate that develop between his characters. Harkaway treats his characters in Tigerman very much in the way that, in previous novels, he treated the ready-made genres he pulled down off the shelf. He delights in borrowing stock settings and stock narratives, and then with even more delight, he zooms in, spins them around, adds color, and generates something new and interesting, unmasking the idea of a person, or of a genre, and showing us the face that lies beneath. The somewhat stereotypical cast here begins very quickly to become less stereotypical. The British sergeant has deep wells of emotion, and rage, that he demonstrates by hacking a particularly cumbersome tomato patch into pieces. The nefarious Ukranian may, in fact, not be all that nefarious so much as a gentle-hearted smuggler. The boy wonder may be a boy, and may be full of wonder, but his intelligence and identity go much deeper than that, a mystery that takes Lester deeper into the nature of the island, its inhabitants, and the fleet which sits off-shore.
What was hidden in those early stories of Superman was the moment of transformation. The moment when Clark Kent disappeared into a closet, or a telephone booth, burst forth from his shell of a man, and took flight as something more and less than man, something very much like an idea. And ever since then, the genre of superheroes has evolved into that moment, into understanding the transformation from a person to an idea, as well as understanding the power of the phone booth, of the secret lair, of the shadows on the cave wall which both reveal and hide. Tigerman sits firmly in that moment, investigating the choices made as the sergeant works with his boy wonder to become Tigerman in order to suss out the mysteries of Mancreu, and, perhaps, to save it from destruction. After all, what better way to fight the invisible fleet than to become a hero, to become, as it were, an idea of good which is as invisible as the evil which it seeks to fight.
This book, as with the characters, opens into something deeper than it first appears. It becomes, as the best stories do, a map of times present, past, and yet to come. It is a map of terror and love and the tangled impossibilities of justice and apocalypse that trip the feet of heroes and villains alike. In the end, Tigerman, our mild-mannered British sergeant Lester Ferris, must do the hard work, which is not hiding, or fighting, but seeing. He must remove his own mask, and see himself, those around him, and the world at large, for what they are, not what they pretend to be. The sergeant becomes much more of a whistle blower, in truth, than a superhero, one who spirals down into the shadows that surround his island, his identity, and the story of the boy that he has come to see, for better and worse, as a son.
Chris Kammerud is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. Presently, he's revising a novel concerning love, revolution, and virtual K-Pop idols. Past work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Ho Chi Minh City. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.