by Daryl Gregory
Nonlocal intelligence. Possession Disorder Variant. Socially Constructed Alternate Identity. Demonic possession. Whatever the term, Del Pierce is all too familiar with the process. While the hundred-odd "strains" of demons in Del's world aren’t interested in temptation or damnation, no one wants a demon to jump to them. When a demon possesses a person, it acts out a familiar role, a static pattern, and woe betide anyone who gets in its way. The Truth, wrapped in a trenchcoat and fedora, brings swift and bloody justice upon deceivers. Smokestack Johnny rides the trains in an eternal breakneck journey. The Captain carries his unwilling victim into heroic, desperate, and usually tragic last stands. The world has adapted. Every restaurant keeps a massive yellow chair for Fat Boy; airports keep altars to the Kamikaze; hospitals know that if a blonde-ringleted girl in a white nightgown is seen, the Angel is on the prowl, seeking out elderly patients to lull into eternal rest.
Del Pierce hasn’t been home in years. But now he is getting desperate, and all of his options seem to be lead back to Chicago. Back to his home. After a brief delay at the airport--the Painter took one of the passengers, and since no one wanted the demon to jump, they just let him do his thing-- Del is finally heading home to face his mother and Very Bigger Brother. He still doesn't know how to break the news.
The thing’s inside my head, Mom, and it’s trying to get out.
Daryl Gregory has swiftly become one of my favourite new finds of the year. It’s hard to say anything much about the book without spoilers, but I love the world and characters that Gregory created. The core idea--that almost superhero-like entities who jump and possess at random rather than clinging to a single host-- is so tantalizing and peculiar that I couldn’t wait to learn more. The story also manages to weave in quite a bit of vintage popular culture, and while most of it lost me, I loved the segments that included classic scifi authors such as Philip K Dick and the apparently impossible-to-pronounce Van Vogt.(show spoiler)
Del, the narrator, is a sympathetic and relatable, his personality riddled with the contradictions and imperfections that are so quintessentially human. Above all, I love his constantly irreverent sense of humour. As he describes himself:
We’d understood from high school on that it was Lew’s job to make good grades, find a high-paying career, buy a two-story house in the suburbs, and generally become Dad. It was my job to fuck up. Occasionally this annoyed me, but most of the time I was comfortable with the division of labor.
Even in moments of drama, desperation, and despair, Del can't relinquish the wordplay. A few (okay, a lot, but I couldn’t choose) Del-isms:
And now we were lost. Or rather, the world was lost. The GPS told us exactly where we were, but had no idea where anything else was. Permanent Global Position: You Are Here.
One thing was clear: Jungians loved yargon.
“On the way there,” I said, “I’ll tell you everything.” I told them everything. Almost everything. Something, anyway.
She was seventy, seventy-five years old, a small bony face on a striated, skinny neck: bright eyes, sharp nose, and skin intricately webbed from too much sun or wind or cigarettes. She looked like one of those orphaned baby condors that has to be fed by puppets.
There was no bathroom: no bath, no room, not even room for a bath. From the smell, the walls were insulated with old fish wrap.
The coffee was terrible and the bacon was ordinary, but the pancakes were avatars of some perfect Ur-cake whose existence until now could only be deduced from the statistical variations in other, lesser pancakes.
The rest of the cast is equally wacky and fun, from Del’s nerdy Very Bigger Brother to his all-seeing, all-knowing, cookie-baking- mom to Mother Mariette the Kabuki exorcist priest to the anti-demon-oriented Human League, who, apart from failing to realize their name was already taken, firmly believe that Van Vogt figured out the secrets of the universe and left encrypted clues in his scifi books. Yet occasionally, accentuated by his forlorn attempts at comedy, Del's pain and desperation can be almost palpable.
Hope wasn’t a thing with feathers, it was a hundred-pound ball and chain. All you had to do was drag that sucker to the edge and throw it over first.
While it wasn't hard to guess what was going on long before Del did, I still found the various revelations riveting, and the conclusion utterly satisfying. Pandemonium is as much about fun as philosophy, and while it doesn’t have a single straightforward message, the issues that it grapples with are intriguing and thought-provoking. In the end, demon-possessed or not, the questions are all the same: what is the purpose of it all? What good can be done in this time, in this body? How can one protect against a disinterested, omnipotent foe? In Del's world, demons are indefatigable, inevitable, endlessly repeating patterns that cannot be avoided or conquered or overcome. Archetypes. Just like sacrifice. Or transformation.
Maybe everyone in the world was this inconsistent, this fragmented. All we could see of each other—all we could see of ourselves—was a ragged person-shaped outline, a game of connect-the-dots without enough dots.