Man who Melted, The by Dann, Jack, 1984
One of the big tasks I set out to accomplish when I started doing these reviews is to assist genre readers in finding the lost classics of SF. There are tons of them out there that I know of. Stanley Weinbaum's Mars short stories, for example, Ward Moore's entire oeuvre, and the few genre works of Kinglsey Amis are some of the examples that I had in mind back then. But I have been slowly collecting a big list of what others consider lost classics, and earlier this week I started on that list by reading Jack Dann's 1984 novel, The Man who Melted. It started out incredible, leveled out a bit in the middle, and finished just fine. Four out of five stars.
The Man who Melted is a surreal and very dream-like late entry in the New Wave's exploration-of-the-mind. Itís also an apocalypse novel, but only secondarily, and itís a love story to boot. The novel begins with the main character, Ray Mantle, desperately searching through whorehouses in France for the shell of his wife, Josianne, while also struggling to remember her fate which is shrouded by amnesia. Josianne was a victim of an attack by a group of "screamers" in New York City some years before. Screamers are humans who have been transformed into imbecilic zombie-like creatures who occasionally mass together in cities and cry out, then destroy property and kill other humans. As they cry normal humans are drawn to them like bees to pollen, where they are either murdered or lose their minds and join the screamers, wandering aimlessly through the countryside awaiting the next cry. Different nations have different policies for dealing with the screamers. Most Europeans are awaiting the final "Great Scream," while the Americans frequently bomb groups of more than two or three. Almost the entire book is dedicated to Mantle's desperate and somewhat obsessive search for Josianne, who by the way is also Mantle's sister. Mantle gets assistance from his lover, Joan, her lover, Pfeiffer, and a few other minor characters. The novel resolves with the resolution of the search, but along the way Dann takes the reader on a pretty dark and bleak death trip that is more than merely tinged with kinky sex.
The themes that Dann works with other than death and sexuality center around communication, and on another level, transformation. Specifically, something in the original screamer's attack has opened up human abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy. Dann also hints that humans may be able to transcend death through direct contact with the screamers, and I think that getting over the fear of death, or rather a presumed transcendence of the soul, is really what he is talking about with this work. Most of Dann's characters, save for Joan, seem to have a pretty strong death wish, and often are stopped at the very edge of death by some primordial survival mechanism. And this society, which has been under fear of the Final Scream for years, has come up with some incredibly novel and interesting ways to kill oneself. With virtually all of the flavors of homicide and suicide decriminalized, the possibilities are endless. In one fantastic section Pfeiffer plays a form of blackjack and gambles with his organs. In the game everyone is hooked into a machine that makes their thoughts available to all. One of the objects of the game, in addition to drawing the proper cards to win, is to keep your opponent from figuring out what you have as a down card. Its the ultimate exploitation of a "tell," but since the machines make it relatively easy, each player has a partner whose job it is to foil the opponent, to keep him from being able to read the player's mind, or fool him into thinking the hole card is something different than it actually is. Pfeiffer's partner is Joan, who is one of his sexual partners despite that they are both very jealous of Mantle's attentions to each of them. Joan may even hate Pfeiffer, who is highly intelligent and quite aggressive in a somewhat nerdy way. I imagined Ben Linus from Lost delivering each of Pfeiffer's lines. In this passage Joan and Pfeiffer have realized that Pfeiffer's opponent, Deux, who has been playing the game with his partner, his wife, for a very long time, can be beat after all. In order to understand the imagery I will tell you also that immediately prior to the game's start, Pfeiffer felt a massive spike of lust for a fur covered servant boy in the atrium of the casino. It was obvious to Joan, and Pfeiffer felt shame over it, even though he and virtually everyone else in the book is bisexual.
It was like tearing a spiderweb.
Pfeiffer felt the man's pain as a feather touching flesh: the organless woman was Monsieur Deux' permanent wife. Pfeiffer had broken through and into his thoughts; he could feel his opponent's name, something like Gayah, Gahai, Gayet, that was it, and his wife was used up. Gayet saw her, in the darkness of his unconscious, as an empty bag. She was the compulsive gambler who had spent her organs; and Gayet hated gambling, but she possessed him; and he hated her and loved her and was just beginning his self-destructive slide.
Now she was using him up. She was gambling his organs.
'She's used up," Pfeifer thought at Gayet. But Pfeiffer could only glimpse Gayet's thoughts. His wife was not exposed.
Nor was she defenseless.
She thrust the image of the furry boy at Pfeiffer, and Pfeiffer felt his head being forced down on the furry boy's lap. But suddenly it wasnít the furry boy anymore. It saw Pfeiffer's father!
There was no distance now. Pfeiffer was caught, tiny and vulnerable. Gayet and his wife were swallowing him up, thoughts and all.
It was Joan who saved him. She pulled him away, and he became the world again, wrapped in show, in whiteness. He was safe again, as if inside Joan's cold womb.
Dann is best known in the genre as an anthologist and editor. I have noticed in the past that those editors who do decide to write stories usually wind up writing deeply moving, dreamlike pieces that literally flow with rich language and deep meaning, and Dann is no exception. For those of you who have read, for example, Garnder Dozois' work, or John Campbell's may know what I am talking about. I figure that they must get so many stories that come across their desk that they practically become masters without ever having to put pencil to paper. Virtually every single image that the author drew in this book, where the connection is not direct, is symbolic in some meaningful way of one of his themes. The editing alone that this book must have required probably took years. Dann's style is also very slow and methodical, and I think that the pacing in this book is one of the most masterful elements it has to offer. Dann tells his story fully, with nothing extra or omitted. The four major parts of the book move along at a comfortable pace. This is not to say that the book is flawless. Dann made a few big mistakes in the telling of this story. For example, he never bothers to say how an imbecilic zombie like Josianne can get from New York City to France. And there is a subplot involving a politician who holds himself out as the Mahdi of the Sudan that goes absolutely nowhere, and should have been either cut or written deeper into the book. But the settings are marvelous, the characters are rich, have personal flaws and contradictory personalities and change as they learn, and the plot is interesting. My advice is to seek this one out, and since it was recently reprinted by Pyr, it should be easy enough to find.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell