Matthew De Abaitua: The Red Men

trtoPretty much every single review of Matthew De Abaitua’s debut novel The Red Men which I have glanced at has compared him to one or two or several other authors and I am feeling that almost irresistible urge myself. Maybe comparison to others is unavoidable with this author – not because he is in any way derivative, but for precisely the opposite reason: His novel is so brilliant and original that it leaves readers bewildered and helpless, groping for the comparison straw just to have something familiar to hold on to.

This is emphasized by the curious fact that even as everyone throws names at this novel, no two readers seem to select the same authors whose work De Abaitua’s novel reminded them of. Finally giving in to temptation, my own associations were of a an equal mix between Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, blended with a generous dose of Will Self and Iain Sinclair – and the diversity of those author’s works is yet another indication of just how hard it is to nail down The Red Men. The novel is as mind- and reality-bending as anything by Dick, as keen-sighted regarding the intersection of psyche and society in late capitalism as by Ballard, is as sharp and funny as Self’s satire and possesses Sinclair’s awareness of places. Those might be actual influences on De Abaitua’s writing (and he does mention Dick in his afterword and did apprently work for Will Self) or it might just be comparisons helpful only to this particular reader, but hopefully they will serve to show the immense scope of the author’s talent.

The Red Man is simultaneously a biting satire on company life and its jargon (“the new new thing”), a near future thriller about the dangers of rampant internet personas (the novel’s titular red men being basically an evolved form of today’s internet trolls) and a meditation on what having to cope with middle age and its responsibilities does to the dreams of one’s youth. All this is held together and tied into an exploration of power – how modern technology helps to increase and concentrate it, whether it is necessary, how it can be abused and just how far one should go to resist that abuse – and then delivered as a novel that is in turns funny and harrowing but always intelligent and generally an excellent read.

It is also very skillfully told – it has two main protagonists, each with their own point of view chapters (each of them taking up most of the novel’s first two parts each), but they do not just stand side by side but one is embedded into the other which makes for interesting refraction and also allows De Abaitua to emphasize the ongoing mirroring between the two narrative threads – doubling being a major theme in The Red Men, as the narrator points out himself at one stage. There is a company named Monad which dominates the first part, and an entity named Dyad who comes increasingly into the foreground during the second, with the third part being mainly concerned with the confrontation between the two (which may, or may not, be the same thing). There is technology vs. biology,computers vs. drugs, economy vs. arts and a whole lot more dichotomies woven into the novel’s fabric, allowing for quite a bit of exegesis if one feels so inclined – for all its readability, The Red Men is very dense in ideas and concepts.

The novel is also very well written – although it is there where I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with it. The Red Men was first published in 2007, what I have been reading is the re-released edition from 2014 – which was heavily edited by the author. According to the author’s afterword he cut some 19,000 word of (his term) “literary flourishes” in order to make his prose more precise and (my term) streamlined for the Science Fiction reading public. Now, I’m all for precision, but I’m no fan of dumbing down language in the name of accessibility. I am well aware that most people these days consider a presumably “transparent” writing style the gold standard and cry purple prose the moment a sentence becomes even slightly more difficult to parse than a news headline. Personally,  however, I think that this a sad state of affairs which impoverishes language and kills the capability for attentive, critical reading. Now, I have not read the early version of The Red Men and it is of course quite possible that the edited version is the better one, but De Abitua’s choice of words in describing the changes gives me some cause for concern and makes me wonder if he hasn’t caved in to the crowd clamouring for supposedly “clean” prose. For my part, I prefer my prose dirty and opaque – I will take an author who risks something with their language over one who plays it safe and “transparent” any day of the week.

But enough of me ranting – even in its edited form, The Red Men is seriously good stuff: Whether you’re interested in Science Fiction (or not) or in Literary Fiction (or not) – go and read it. And who knows – in ten, maybe twenty years, readers may turn the last page of a novel by a promising young author, blinking and scratching their heads, wondering what they just read… and think that, somehow, it had a distinctly De Abaitua-ish vibe to it.

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5 comments

  1. Like you, I find his comments about trimming down the prose frustrating. Perhaps they really needed a good editor? Perhaps his defensiveness about “writing in SF” is kicking in… It’s a strange thing to write about in a revised edition.

    That said, I’ll keep this on my radar when I get around to reading newer SF again. Thanks for the review Heloise!

    1. My comment is slightly unclear — my apologies! “Perhaps the book really needed a good editor?” (hence why the prose was reduced). And “Perhaps his defensiveness about writing SF is kicking in.”

      I realize that both my speculations are somewhat harsh. But his comments evoke that response in me….

      1. Thanks to you for reading and taking the time to comment! 🙂

        And yeah, I suppose you’re viewing De Abaitua’s afterword in a rather unfavourable light – but I think it’s definitely a legimate interpretation of what he wrote there. I admit, I was also frowning a bit about his “writing in SF” remark (“this edit has been to clear away some of the literary affectations so that the science fiction can be more clearly discerned”) – not sure I’d call it defensive but it could appear somewhat condescending, like he simplified his writing style until even dumb SF were capable of taking it in. Looking at most of what gets publshed – and read – in the SF field, one hesitates to say an attitude like that is completely off – but there certainly are nicer ways to bring it across. And whichever way one choses to interpret it, at the heart of he does seem to view literary and SFnal writing as opposites which I don’t think has been a feasible attitude for well over fity years now.

        And of course it#s absolutely possible that the first version of The Red Men was in need of an editor – with neither of us knowing that version, either hypotheses are equally plausible. It’s just that I’m generally of a sunny disposition and try to assume the best. 😉

        In any case, I’m definitely going to read De Abaitua’s other two novels, and who knows, I might even end up posting about them, too. 😉

        1. Yeah I find “so that the science fiction can be more clearly discerned” a bizarre phrase — as if “science fiction” is some overt category that has to be revealed via simple language…. Or that the “science fiction” has to be front and center. Gah, I’ve read so many books where the “science fiction” is only indirectly implied — and they can be very well done!

          I look forward to any future posts Heloise, as always!

          1. Exactly that, or possibly that readers’ minds are incapable to grasp science fiction if it comes with “literary flourishes” attached (in itself a hair-raising concept of course, but that’s a different can of worms), which is equally bizarre.

            Well, whatever the merits of the edits, and whether they improved The Red Men or not, as it stands now it still remains an extraordinary and very fascinating novel. I thought I’d better point that out again, to avoid giving the wrong impression. 😉

            And thank you, glad to hear you’re enjoying my ramblings. 🙂 Posts have been a tad infrequent recently, and that probably won’t change, but I’m trying to not let the blog completely go under.

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