“Somebody with an Insect’s Head Passed Out on the Couch”

Posted by on December 12th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible came out in 2007 and I just got around to reading it. Glad I did. There are two narrators, the villainous Dr. Impossible and a rookie heroine named Fatale, and they both sound like MFA candidates caught in a long February of the soul. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, not at all. Here are some of the bits I liked best.

Dr. Impossible stands too near a cyborg superhero: “in the silences I could hear faint tinny voices and bursts of static, as if a cybernetic component in his chest were inadvertently picking up shortwave. It was vaguely embarrassing, like a fart.” He describes the book’s superhero team as a “shifting roster of robots, athletes, madmen, and gods.”

The rookie heroine, Fatale, has just joined the team. Hanging out in the kitchen, she notes that Damsel, the group’s leader, is wearing sweatpants “and a T-shirt from the Yale Law School.” Later, during a team huddle: “Blackwolf is lecturing me, Supervillains 101. He only does his Clint Eastwood routine in public; in private he’s got a higher voice, almost geekily nasal.”

Origin. Doctor Impossible starts as a grad student, brilliant but miserable, wasting years of his life as he pursues a dead-end research project in Cambridge and the dreary outskirts of Boston. Then the breakthrough, the discovery of the neglected tome that will bring about his transformation:

No ordinary book. A book of leaves, a book of rain, a book of parking lots and college quadrangles and all the long walks and lonely afternoons of my days and nights. What is a genius? I read and read and read, until I saw in that summer landscape of strip malls and parking lots and high school auditoriums a grand design laid out like a printed circuit in grass and asphalt, a strange rune of mysterious import, shining and telling the true story of the last great age.

And he recalls his early days as a powered individual:

I fought for prize money in unlicensed hero fights in Bangkok, brawling in basement rooms lined with mattresses, sweating under the lights. It was the bottom end of the hero trade—local talents and wanted fugitives, oddballs with nothing going for them, just a taste of power to set them apart. An American in homebrew armor fought three Australian pygmy shamans; a karate specialist fought a French sorcerer, a Russian who’d come out of Chernobyl. Small-timers, grotesques and rejects, one-on-one or in groups, late into the nights, while the crowd screamed and jeered so loud you couldn’t think; you wouldn’t feel it when you’d taken a bad cut or a burn. I fought as Baron Benzene, as Count Smackula, as whatever name they put on the marquee. Smartacus. Doctor Fiasco.

I learned basic lessons, how to throw a super-powered punch without falling off your feet, and how to take one. How to spot the telltales of power: the stutter-step of a bad nerve operation, and the alien hybrids, Altairian eyes and Enderri hands. How to look at the way superheroes walk, or their eyes, or their hands, and see what happened to their bodies, once upon a time. Most of them had paid a price for their power, and for most of them it turned out to be too high. If you knew what to look for, you could see it in the first few steps they took in the arena.

I fought three or four times a week, waking up on off days bruised or singed, steamy rainy mornings in Bangkok in an apartment over a market a half-dozen of us rented together, Pharoah and Shylock and a rotating cast of down-and-outers. I’d be stretched on a mattress on the floor; somebody with an insect’s head passed out on the couch.

Fatale speaks. She’s a cyborg and not really comfortable with that status, or much else, and she has her share of resentments and prejudices:

I don’t like robots. I hate meeting them socially, even the smart ones that can paint pictures and talk about religion. I met XCathedra once, at a Washington reception connected to the high tech industry. She was there, schmoozing with cybernetics executives who crowded around her like dwarves around Snow White. She was painted in white racing stripes for the occasion. I found myself looking at her shoulder joint, wondering whether we had any technologies in common. When our eyes met the feeling was uncomfortably intimate.

I love that: “even the smart ones that can paint pictures and talk about religion.” At any rate, it seems that being part-machine is no good for peace of mind:

Sleeping, I dream about my cyborg half, that it’s a monster that has half-devoured me, its teeth sunk in the right half of my body. Or it’s a forest I’ve wandered into, and I’m lost amid its mazy pathways, deep pools, strange trees whose long fronds brush my shoulders. In the center there’s an enchanted well I can never quite reach. Night falls and the sky shows strange new constellations. When I wake at night, the world glows in wireframe.

Tonight, I have a whole long dream about a list of assembler instructions and their possible uses and then about the team that wrote them, a bunch of engineers in the 1980s. It turns out to be obsolete documentation that got left on an install disc for a chip series three generations before mine, made by a Protheon-owned company out in New Mexico. Just before waking, I catch a glimpse of red earth and a storefront office window in an Albuquerque strip mall, the smell of air conditioning and bad office coffee, the glass door swinging shut, as if whoever made me has only just left the building.

Protheon is the company that refitted her from human to cyborg. But anyway, take a look at Invincible if you haven’t. It’s quite a read.

Daily proverb. As long as she smiles and is glad to see you, things can’t be that bad.

Stan says. It’s even greater than you dared hope it would be –- The Monster of Frankenstein! Thrill to it today!

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One Response to ““Somebody with an Insect’s Head Passed Out on the Couch””

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    ———————-
    Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible came out in 2007..
    ———————-

    2007? Gad, how the years go by! I got the book back then, and heartily agree with your appreciation. This…

    ———————-
    “in the silences I could hear faint tinny voices and bursts of static, as if a cybernetic component in his chest were inadvertently picking up shortwave. It was vaguely embarrassing, like a fart.”
    ———————–

    …was one of my favorite parts too. Other enjoyable parts were when the fledgling supervillain is forced to open his low-budget underground HQ to inspection by some thuggish superheroes, and is embarrassed by its cheesiness; Doctor Impossible chased around another lab towards the end, the “action” specked by bits of ludicrousness; a gathering of supervillains (in an old warehouse, if I remember right) approached in the night, the shadowed figures subtly menacing, bizarre.

    There is a “sweet spot” between dismissing superheroics as simply ridiculous, and treating the whole schmear as such (Noah B. praises this approach at http://www.tcj.com/hoodedutilitarian/2010/12/the-best-superhero-movie-ever/ ) and the utterly grim-and-gritty tactic of Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” Whose clenched-jaw hero makes one think of Raymond Chandler’s quip: “a small boy’s idea of a tough guy.”

    this spot is where Grossman’s book is placed; the offhandedness of “somebody with an insect’s head passed out on the couch” reminding us we’re in a place where such is no big deal; capturing the alien-ness of superheroes, the eerie touches which make them different. Along with stuff like ““Blackwolf…only does his Clint Eastwood routine in public; in private he’s got a higher voice, almost geekily nasal,” which place at least part of the whole improbable structure in reality.

    Delish!

    (The only comic I can think of with a somewhat similar vibe is the fondly-remembered run of Grant Morrison and Richard Case on “Doom Patrol”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doom_Patrol#Grant_Morrison.27s_Doom_Patrol )