Review: “Box Nine” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, after reading Jack O’Connell’s excellent “Word Made Flesh” about three weeks ago, I was eager to read more of his novels. And, I thought that I’d start with a second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1992 novel “Box Nine”. And what a novel it is 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Box Nine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Box Nine” that I read.

The story takes place in the fictional New England city of Quinsigamond. A new drug, lingo, has hit the streets. It lights up the language centres of the brain like a Christmas tree before eventually sending the user into a violent homicidal rage.

Lenore is a badass, heavy metal-obsessed speed freak whose main spiritual belief is in the power of her .357 magnum. She’s also a narcotics cop who, much to her disdain, has been paired with a mild-mannered scientist for the investigation into lingo…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow! It is a masterpiece. This is an information-dense, intelligent, imaginative noir detective novel that is so well-written that you’ll be reading it as quickly as an action-thriller novel. It is a book that has the human depth of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“, as much atmosphere as a cyberpunk novel, the uncensored weirdness of old beat literature (or maybe something a little bit like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”) and more cool-ness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this novel is awesome 🙂

This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand to truly be appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice. And, like with “Word Made Flesh”, it probably isn’t for everyone either. But, I’ll try to describe it to the best of my abilities.

I should probably start by talking about the detective/thriller elements of this story. Like any good noir novel (and, yes, “The Maltese Falcon” is referenced in this book), this novel focuses on things like moral ambiguity, atmosphere, complex plotting and an intricate web of criminal intrigue. Although the investigation sometimes seems more like a background detail (when compared to all of the compelling characterisation, drama etc..) it is certainly well-written and well-plotted. Like a thriller novel, there are also quite a few story threads that are expertly brought together by the end of the story.

One interesting element of the detective parts of the story is how the story approaches the topic of policing and drugs. Not only is the novel’s main detective (Lenore) a morally-ambiguous gun nut who takes a lot of amphetamines, but the story also includes a brilliant satire of the war on drugs too. Whilst the story doesn’t shy away from the damage drugs can cause, the novel’s police and drug dealers are shown to exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

But, although this is a detective story, the main thing that keeps this novel page-turningly compelling is the writing and the characterisation. Like a good cyberpunk or noir novel, this story is written in both a grippingly fast-paced way and an information-dense way. This links in absolutely perfectly with the novel’s themes of language, paranoia and stimulants. This story dazzles you with atmospheric descriptions, deep insights and complex drama at a hundred miles an hour and it is a joy to behold 🙂

The novel’s third-person narration is written in an intelligently informal way and this is one of those stories that has a wonderfully distinctive narrative voice that you’ll want to read more of. The narration flickers between “matter of fact”/thriller-style descriptions and more literary narration so quickly that you’ll read it as fast as the former and get the intellectual satisfaction of the latter. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that tells a high-brow story with the gripping intensity of a more low-brow story 🙂

The novel also includes some interesting experimental touches too. These take the form of conversation transcripts, talk radio excerpts and dictaphone messages from one of the other characters (which are related in breathless, paragraph-less “stream of consciousness” rambles). These segments really help to add some intensity and background depth to the story, although the dictaphone segments can – ironically- slow the story down a little.

The other thing that keeps this novel so brilliantly compelling are the characters 🙂 This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, yet, all of this characterisation was so fascinating that it never really seemed like a distraction from the gripping, atmospheric story.

Lenore is an absolutely fascinating protagonist (plus, she listens to Iron Maiden too 🙂 ) who could have easily become a two-dimensional “Tank Girl“- like cartoon character in the hands of a lesser writer. But, here, she’s presented as a complex, flawed and intriguing character who is more interesting and original than the characters in many other novels.

The other characters are also really fascinating too. Whether it is Lenore’s shy, methodical and introverted twin brother Ike, some of the other detectives, some of the local gangsters, the owners of Lenore’s favourite restaurant, the boss of the local post office or the scientist that Lenore has to team up with, I cannot praise the characters enough 🙂 Not only are they interesting and well-written, but a lot of the novel’s characterisation also comes from character interactions and the contrast between different characters too.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to the story’s main theme of language and communication, the novel also tackles topics like loneliness, memory, drugs, books, politics, violence etc.. too. Seriously, this is one of those books that probably needs to be read multiple times in order to be fully appreciated.

In terms of length, this novel is really good too. Although this novel is 352 pages long, it manages to cram 450+ pages of storytelling into this space. In other words, this novel never really feels like it is too long and the story doesn’t suffer from the bloatedness that more modern novels can sometimes suffer from.

As for how this twenty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, it is clearly the product of a slightly more “edgy” decade (and a few descriptions/words in it would probably be frowned upon if written today) and there are a couple of brilliantly ’90s moments – like a hilarious scene where some gnarly 1990s surfer dudes perform Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but, for the most part, this novel is pretty much timeless. In addition to still being very gripping and atmospheric, a lot of the novel’s satire has also aged astonishingly well too.

For example, the novel’s satirical depiction of paranoid, ranting talk radio hosts could easily be a satire of the more unsavoury parts of the modern internet. Likewise, the novel’s hilarious satire of the trendy, hipsterish part of Quinsigamond wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 2010s. The novel’s satire of things like police violence, corruption etc.. are also still reasonably relevant in the present day too.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, creative and complex novel that is as grippingly fast-paced as an action-thriller novel. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those novels that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

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