Tag Archives: parallel universe

The 22 Murders of Madison May: Max Barry

Last year, Max Barry’s novel Providence made my best-of-year list. Providence, a science fiction novel, follows a ship’s crew as it heads into the Violet Zone, deep space, as the battleship, on a search and destroy mission, hunts for Salamanders, a hostile race locked into a war in space with humans. Providence tackles big questions such as AI vs. human intelligence–both come with flaws. It’s been over a year since I read Providence and I still think about the book almost daily. Roll onto 2021, and it’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. When I first saw the name of Barry’s latest, the title seemed to have a playfulness to it–and I thought about that. ‘Murder’ isn’t playful at all, so the playful aspect comes from the name Madison May. The name is a bit stripper-ish, a bit actress-y.

The 22 Murders of Madison May is also science-fiction, a parallel universe novel. When the story opens, Madison May, a sweet, young real estate agent is about to show a home, a “dump.” Since she’s meeting the buyer, a man named Clay, alone, she takes his photo for “security.” Clay seems more interested in Madison than the house, and she begins to get bad vibes. There are horrible bite wounds on his arms, all in various stages of healing. He locks the doors, takes Madison’s phone and asks her to come into the bedroom to talk. Madison, who is a naturally perky person, decides that the best course of action is to humour Clay, at least until she can run, and after all, her office has Clay’s photo and all his information so “it would be crazy for Clay to do anything.

Once in the bedroom, Clay tells Madison that he’s traveled from another world just to see her.

“All this …” He gestured to … the room, the curtains? No, no: the world of course. “It’s a drop in the ocean. There are more worlds. More than you can count. They look the same but they’re not, not if you pay attention. And you’re in all of them. Everywhere I go, you’re doing different things. Every time I leave, it’s to find you again.”

That day, reporter Felicity Staples is asked to cover a murder. That’s not her usual beat, but since Levi, the paper’s crime reporter is out, Felicity goes to the crime scene. Real estate agent, Madison May is the murder victim, and outside of the taped crime scene a man and a woman stand watching. The crime scene is bloody, and “the drywall had been carved open with thick slashes. There were five angled prongs crossing a circle.” What do the marks mean?

Felicity discovers that the “insignia” carved into the wall is the same insignia on a cap worn by man who was outside of the crime scene when Felicity arrives, but the police don’t seem interested in her tip. A little amateur detective work on logos leads her to The Soft Horizon Juice Company. From this point, things don’t add up: there’s a man, named Hugo, who should be in Sing Sing for murdering his wife, walking the streets of Manhattan. Just what is The Soft Horizon Juice Company and how is it connected to Madison’s murder? After being shoved off of a subway platform, Felicity returns home but there’s something off…. . She’s still a reporter, her boyfriend is still tried-and-true Gavin, but there’s something not quite right:

She felt off-balance. There was something wrong and she couldn’t figure out what.

Felicity inadvertently becomes mixed up in the hunt for a serial killer, but unlike most serial killers, Clay travels to parallel universes to kill the same woman. Over and over again.

So that’s enough of the plot. Max Barry’s entertaining novel is mind-blowing for those of us who love or believe in parallel universe theory. This could be a grim read, but the author seeds this with light touches. Felicity’s boyfriend is slightly different in each universe; sometimes better, sometimes not. As Felicity steps into and adjusts to, her subsequent new lives, parallel universe travel brings up some moral questions.

“There’s no time travel. You’re in a physically different place. It shares an ancestor with where you’re from, but at some point it split. Since then, it evolved independently.”

“You’re saying there are two worlds? A real one and a … a secret–?”

“Many worlds. Detaching and refolding all the time. Nothing makes one more real than the other.”

“Parallel dimensions?she said, groping for a concept. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Another winner from Max Barry

review copy

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Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

This is what happens, she supposes to dramatic events: they create feelings that create other feelings, memories that give way to memories of having them. The 0lder you get, the more life seems like a tightening spiral of nostalgia and narcissism, and the actual palpable world recedes into insignificance, replaced by a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.

There are days when I despair about the future of American fiction, and then there are days when I discover something extraordinary, and that brings me to J. Robert Lennon’s enigmatic, thought-provoking book, Familiar.  Last year I read and was impressed by Castle–a disturbing book which follows the relocation of a strangely disaffected man to New York State. Familiar is equally disturbing, but for this reader, it’s a perfect, unsettling novel that surpasses genre and explores questions about identity, grief, parenthood, and the possibility of … a parallel universe. Is this science-fiction or is this a story of a woman so wracked with guilt and burdened with uncomfortable, deeply regretted decisions that she has a psychotic break?

Elisa Macalaster Brown is a middle-aged woman who’s returning home to Reevesport in New York State from her annual solitary trek to her son, Silas’s, grave in Wisconsin. Silas, the youngest son of two by just 11 months, was trouble from almost the moment he was born. He dominated his older, weaker sibling, Sam, and he grew from a difficult child into an alienated teen. Silas was killed in a senseless car accident; Elisa fell apart, “became obsessed with the past, with all the wrong turns their lives together had taken,” and she endured a meltdown. Eventually the family moved away from Wisconsin to Reevesport.

On the surface, Elisa appeared to heal, but she never fully recovered from Silas’s death. On the neurotic side and pencil thin, she’s employed as the manager of a lab while her husband, Derek is a lecturer at SUNY Reevesport. Their marriage is another casualty of grief, and Elisa has a hidden affair with a local man. As Elisa makes her contemplative, solitary drive back to New York to return to her unhappy life, something happens. The crack in the windshield of her battered old Honda disappears, and suddenly she’s in a different car, wearing different clothes….

Elisa looks up the road. Only a second, less than a second, has passed, and the road has grown. It’s wider, the sky is taller. And it’s cloudy now, partly cloudy, many small clouds, as though the single cloud has spawned. No–it isn’t the road that’s wider, it’s the windshield, the windshield is larger.

She glances around her, at the interior of her car, and it isn’t her car.

Elisa is still Elisa–except she’s called Lisa by her husband and work colleagues. She returns to her home, and while it is still the same house, she notices subtle changes:

Yews they tore out a few years ago are still there. The grass, to which she had always been indifferent, is healthy and trim, and the pink dogwood, the one that had seemed certain to die but then rallied and came back to life, that dogwood is gone and in its place stands a Japanese maple.

 But these are just cosmetic changes. The ‘new’ Elisa is plumper, dresses differently, she has a different job, and she’s in therapy. Also rather disturbingly her marriage with Derek is quite different:

There is something reassuring, isn’t there, about the absence of love. This is what she has often told herself. The only real marriage is the marriage of the body and the mind. Until death do us part; a romantic lie. People can indeed be parted. Love can end, and the body and mind soldier on. To pick up the phone and find that love is gone, that’s something a person can understand. That’s a thing that happens. To pick up the phone and find that love is here, where it doesn’t belong: well.

But the strangest, most disturbing new element to Elisa’s life is that Silas isn’t dead….

Has Elisa had a psychotic break or has she entered a parallel universe in which Silas’s death, a single moment that “interrupted” and altered the course of her life did not happen? If Elisa faces the former scenario, should she risk confiding in anyone? Dropped into an alien life, so like her “old” life, and yet so different, Elisa is drawn to investigating the possibilities: is she experiencing some sort of meltdown? Which life is ‘real’? In this new life, Silas is alive, but why is Elisa totally alienated from her sons? What happens if she suddenly finds herself back in her old, grief-wracked life?  

In the most imaginative, fascinatingly complex novel I’ve read since Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, author J. Robert Lennon plays with issues of identity, grief and memory through Elisa’s character. Elisa, of course, is driven to discover the truth behind the ‘splitting’ she experienced. Mentally, it’s a dangerous, disturbing journey, for she begins to unravel the delicate facade of stability and functionality she and Derek have built over the years. Increasingly she turns to yet another universe for the answers she seeks: the world of the internet–a world in which we can all be anything we want to be, and a world in which reality has no place.  Silas argues that “stories exist to make sense of life.” How much of Elisa’s two lives are ‘stories’ that try and make sense of what happened?

Most of us, I suspect have experiences that occurred due to some fluke, some incident. If we hadn’t crossed that road at the moment. If we hadn’t picked up the phone. If we hadn’t taken that trip. That’s the sort of collective experience that the author taps into here, so even though what happens to Elisa has its fantastic element, it’s easy to identify with her dilemma. What would we do if given an opportunity to enter a universe without the one terrible incident that marred our lives? Would that new life be better, worse, or just different? This intelligent novel does not seek to provide easy answers for the reader–instead the novel is a deeply engaging, intense exploration of complex ideas. Grief, guilt, mental illness and regret all create whispering imagined parallel universes, but has Elisa gone one step beyond?  Every word, every scene complements the mystery, the anomaly of Elisa’s experiences and memories. Incredible, intriguing, hypnotic, and troubling, this novel is one of my Best of 2012.

He saw himself in a strange city with his friend, except that the face of the friend was different.

Review copy

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