Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

A terrorist, a nurse, and a garbageman walk into an apartment complex in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The setup is the ending of a great novel, not the beginning of an awful joke.

Near Enemy* is Adam Sternbergh's second novel featuring Spademan, an ex-garbageman, ex-limn junkie turned hitman. Throughout the story, Spademan follows half-clues and his instincts to unravel the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Lesser, one of the techie prodigies who created the virtual reality limnosphere and worked on the off-the-books project "Near Enemy."

See,  an anonymous woman phones Spademan and hires him to kill Lesser. When Spademan gets to Lesser's apartment, however, plans change.

Spademan . . . invites himself . . . into the apartment and instructs Moore, the "nurse" Lesser has monitoring his vitals while he is sedated and hooked up to the limnosphere, to bring Lesser back to the "real-time" world. Lesser jerks awake and loses his mind. He tells Spademan and Moore that something horrible, something impossible, happened in the limnosphere: someone was murdered. For real.

After the limnosphere was constructed, people began paying top dollar to "tap in" to the structured virtual reality fantasies of their choosing. Some people chose sexual fetish fantasies, like mass orgies with amputee prostitutes, while others like Spademan's friend Mark chose fantasies where they can become militant angels.

No matter what fantasy is constructed, no matter how dark or twisted or perverse, nothing that happens in the limnosphere affects the bodies remaining in the waking world. Well, nothing until Lesser saw a Muslim woman strapped with bombs embrace the millionaire he was dream-hopping on and blow him into a million bloody pieces.

The primary reason so many people had been taping in to the limnosphere was to escape the tense reality and fear that pervaded the waking world. A couple of decades after 9/11, Islamic terrorists attacked Times Square and the New York subway system, killing thousands of people, including Spademan's wife. As a countermeasure, NYPD "cleared the streets" of Muslims -- exiling them, slaughtering men, women, and children in their homes, laying waste to entire neighborhoods. Though New York was "clean," the ruined city saw a mass exodus of inhabitants, and the entire nation was on edge.

So what would it mean if Lesser was right? What if terrorists had found a way to attack people from within the limnosphere, from within their very dreams? Nowhere would be safe.

In his search for the abducted Lesser, Spademan finds out that nothing is as it seems in the limn or in the real world.

Sternbergh writes Spademan's account of events, from dialogue to action, as very stream-of-consciousness. At first, I had a hard time following along with the book for this very reason. There are times when it is difficult to distinguish between action and dialogue or even who is saying what. Here is an example from p. 8:
     So I put down the sledge. Gently. Hold a hand out.\
     Name's Spademan.
     Kid blinks once. Sign of life.
     I'm Moore.
     Funny. Lesser and Moore. Fat and skinny. Like a comedy duo.
And no shake. Fair enough. I put the hand away.
     Can you give me a moment? I need to talk to Lesser.
     I don't think he'd want to be disturbed.
     Trust me, I'll only take a minute.
     But I'm supposed to watch him.
     I don't think you want to watch this.
     Skinny gets the hint. Grabs his things...
After page 20, though, I got used to and even enjoyed reading this writing style.

Don't think that Sternbergh's sparse-feeling prose leaves anything to be desired in terms of description. One of the most eloquently described passages from the book comes when Spademan is remembering the time he threw his teacher's cherished copy of The Maltese Falcon away:
      And I still remember to this day how the paperback fit so
perfectly between the gaps in the grate before I let it drop, like I
was delivering it through the mail slot, and the fluttering sound it
made as it fell and then vanished, and how it landed in the sewer
below with a splash, and how, once I'd let it go, I wished more
than anything I could reach down into the darkness and pull it
back. (p. 120).
You can see this amazing use of language more concisely in the action of the story:
     Blocks away.
     Dab of yellow against the ashtray gray of the streetscape.
Lone cab prowling. (Spademan on spotting a cab, p. 278)
Another thing I appreciate about Sternbergh's writing is the way he incorporates the importance of stories into his narrative.

Typically, when I see this nod to writing and literature in other stories (characters actions/reactions in the book-burning scene in The Walking Dead, Stephen King's ever-present English educator primary character, etc.), I get a little queasy. I am reading books/enjoying the plot of this show because I like and appreciate the art of storytelling; I don't need a consistent and blatant reminder of the importance of books. So, while I understand why authors sometimes choose to include this element in their writing, I usually find that it is distracting and can ruin the magic of an otherwise engaging story.

Sternbergh, however, incorporates this tribute to storytelling in a unique, non-disturbing way. In addition to the passage from p. 120 I included above, my favorite case of Sternbergh drawing attention to the power of storytelling comes from the following passage:
     True or not, it doesn't matter, once the first shots have been
fired. Wars aren't fought over ideas, Spademan, or beliefs--you
must know that. They're fought over stories. You tell your story, I
tell my story, then we fight. The winner gets to write the ending.
That's how history works.
There is also this consistent vein of religion that pops up from time to time in the book. The beginning of the plot is driven by finding out if the Islamist attacks in the limn are a real thing; Persephone, Spademan's kind-of-ward, kind-of-love-interest, is the daughter of a megachurch leader whom she and Spademan killed in Shovel Ready, who still prays for help; and Spademan turns to religion when he is in a tough spot at the end of the book. It is definitely an aspect of the novel to consider when reading.

If you are into weird fiction that is flavored with hints of dystopia, tech, counter terrorism, virtual reality, mystery, drama, and a strangely lovable narrator, you should read Adam Sternbergh's Near Enemy.

About the author of Near Enemy:

Adam Sterbergh is a contributing editor for New York magazine and Vulture. Formerly culture editor of The New York Times Magazine, his writing has appeared in GQ and the Times of London and on This American Life. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his family. Near Enemy is his second novel.

Learn more about the author by going to his website or follow him on Twitter @sternbergh.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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