A couple of days before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive and wondering what I was going to read next when I noticed my copy of Jack O’Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” propped up against a stack of DVDs near my computer.
It had been there for several years, perhaps even a decade. It had been a mere decorative item right up until that point. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop in Brighton sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s. I bought it purely on the strength of the cool-looking cover art, the “18 certificate”-style logo on the cover (for my US readers, an “18 certificate” is the UK equivalent of a “hard R” or “NC-17” film rating) and the critic quote that likened it to “Blade Runner“. It seemed really cool.
Yet, it languished near my computer for years before I actually thought about, you know, reading it. So, yes, this review has been a long time coming.
So, let’s take a look at “Word Made Flesh”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
The story takes place in a New England city called Quinsigamond. It begins with a description of a man called Leo Tani being cruelly murdered by persons unknown. Then, we see an ex-police taxi driver called Gilrein being beaten up by two gangsters who are looking for something they believe that Gilrein owns. However, they are interrupted by one of Gilrein’s cop buddies called Oster, who scares them away.
Oster insists on driving Gilrein to a derelict printworks where the local police (who are more of a gang than a law enforcement agency) now reside. Gilrein hasn’t returned to this building since his wife, Ceil, was killed by a bomb blast there whilst investigating a case. Oster tries to convince Gilrein to re-join the police, but Gilrein refuses and they part on unfriendly terms.
Meanwhile, another taxi driver called Otto Langer talks to a mysterious passenger called the Inspector. He tells the Inspector of his younger days in a European city called Maisel. He talks about how he belonged to a Jewish sect called the Ezzenes, who were singled out for cruel, violent, genocidal persecution by the city’s authorities.
A while later, Gilrein is still puzzled by the threats against him from the gangsters and about Leo’s murder. So, he decides to investigate…
One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, although it isn’t for the faint-hearted, it is an astonishingly good novel 🙂 Imagine that Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler decided to sit down and write a novel together. If they did, the book they would produce would probably look a lot like “Word Made Flesh”.
In other words, this novel is a brilliantly unique combination of a disturbing horror novel, a detailed cyberpunk dystopia (without the computers), a work of surrealist beat literature and a complex noir detective story. And all of these different elements are blended together in a complex and seamless way that almost becomes it’s own new genre.
Still, when you start reading this book, it can be easy to mistake it for a horror novel. And a very potent one at that!
The story begins with a macabre flourish of extreme horror and chilling dystopian horror that will make even the most jaded of horror fiction and dystopian fiction readers wince and recoil with shocked and unsettled disgust. Yet, if you have both the stomach and the stoutness of mind for the first 40-50 pages, then the story begins to become more than just a shocking and deeply unsettling extreme horror story.
This story, like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” is a complex story that will require your full attention. It isn’t easy reading in any sense of the word, but it is well worth putting in the effort. Not only is the writing in this novel filled with atmospheric descriptions, historical/cultural allusions, realistic dialogue, respect for the reader’s intelligence and lots of brilliantly quotable turns of phrase – but this novel also has a wonderfully intelligent level of thematic and narrative complexity too.
Basically, if you can understand the labyrinthine plot of a Raymond Chandler novel, then you’ll be in your element here. If not, you might get confused. And, yes, you need to pay attention when reading this novel.
For example, the solution to the murder mystery at the beginning of the novel is never explicitly spelled out, yet the reader is provided with enough clues to work out who probably did it (and why). Likewise, unless you pay careful attention to various pieces of backstory, then some of the later events of the story may not make sense. This is a story that respects the reader’s intelligence and demands that you think about it.
Thematically, this story is really interesting. One of the major themes, consistent with novels like “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson and some of William Burroughs’ novels is the idea of language and/or knowledge being a cross between a virus and a magical thing. In essence, “Word Made Flesh” is a story about stories (or a “metafiction” if you want to sound pretentious).
More particularly, it is a novel about the power of stories. This includes a woman whose entire life is shaped by seeing a film about a mysterious 19th century murder case, a man who repeats his life story to all those who will listen, a man who believes that he can hack people’s minds using language, a plague spread by a book, some fourth-wall breaking moments and a chilling tale about how an attempt to document an unspeakable atrocity (by turning it into a story) ends up inadvertently glorifying the perpetrator.
Another interesting theme in the novel is the theme of skin. This is probably more of a motif than a theme, but there’s a lot of skin-related imagery and events in this story. Although this is partially there to add an unsettling atmosphere to the story, it also possibly has some metaphorical significance too. This is because there’s one part of the story that talks about how people are separated by language, how everyone is alone because we only see others from the outside etc… So, presumably the emphasis on skin is related to this theme.
The novel also includes a lot of other themes (eg: religion, history, the nature of evil, mental health/PTSD, culture, authority etc..) too, but I should probably get on with the review.
The novel’s characters are extremely well-written and are a motley crew of washed-up, eccentric and/or morally ambiguous characters who are all unique individuals with realistic (if occasionally strange) motivations. They are all people who have been influenced or affected by their pasts in some way or another too.
This novel is also wonderfully atmospheric too. The story’s settings are left deliberately ambiguous, with the reader given enough information to picture individual locations – but with enough vagueness to make the larger “world” of the story seem like something unsettlingly strange and confusing. Along with the excellent writing (possibly influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson, Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs), this really helps to lend the novel a compelling atmosphere that will make you want to read more.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is a little bit slow-paced, the story’s atmosphere, intelligence and writing will ensure that it remains compelling nonetheless. Likewise, at 314 pages, this novel never really feels bloated. Seriously, most writers would be lucky to cram a story like this into 500 pages, let alone 314.
In terms of how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged extremely well. Not only are the novel’s moments of horror still extremely effective, but the novel’s themes and complexities are pretty much timeless. A lot of what helps to preserve this novel is the ambiguity about when it is set (eg: the future? the 1990s? the 1950s? etc..) – this lends the story a slightly timeless quality which means that it still holds up really well to this day.
All in all, this is a unique, creative and intelligent novel that I’m really glad that I read 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone. But, if you’re open-minded, if you don’t mind intelligent storytelling, if you aren’t easily-shocked and if you want to read something that is like a mixture of Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler – then you will absolutely love this novel 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.