One of the things that gets noticed about Steampunk (or of which it is at times accused) is a tendency for slightly though deliberately stilted prose, convoluted sentencry, and an almost-but-not-genuinely-authentic lexicon featuring words that, for all their satisfying flavour, probably never existed in fact; quite as though it is each author’s duty–nay, pleasure–to imbue a sense of pseudo-Victoriana upon the text itself, and not merely the narrative therein.
A bit like that opening sentence, in fact.
Partly for this very reason, I approached Dan Glaser’s début novel A Fistful of Nothing with something approaching an expectational blank slate. True, also I had never heard of the man a week before–but in particular because it was the first time I’d read something that explicitly embraced the label Dieselpunk. I knew what steam power had in store for me, stylistically speaking, but not this.
That’s not to say I had zero expectations, of course. As a fan of William Gibson and the suffix-originating Cyberpunk genre, I knew I’d be getting a period-styled tale with an “urban” edge of some sort. Like equally catchy-sounding (and, some occasionally claim, imaginary) subgenres such as Decopunk (interbellum scifi) and Atompunk (nü-clear, perhaps?), Dieselpunk is retro-futurism–this time broadly of the 1950s, and I’d come across interesting mash-ups in the past.
But is there more to the other ~punks than setting? And where will it all end, with Flowerpunk? Discopunk? Punkpu— well, that one’s probably not going to happen. Anyway, let’s concentrate on the matter at hand.
The year is 1952, war never cooled and the battered population of Los Angeles hides from the ceaseless bombardment of America’s west coast in the sewers and tunnels beneath the city. Welcome to the Hollywoodholes–a subterranean warren of patched up dives, diners, clubs and casinos either reclaimed from the surface or blasted down from it, populated by varying degrees of human trash willing to do almost anything to survive, be it scavenging, empire building, or good old fashioned violence.
Enter Jim “Jimbo” Maynard, a once-lucky former Private Investigator with a face for punching, who–in classic noir style–stumbles into the path of bad news and follows it right to the bitter end. He treads on the toes of power, kicks over rocks that would have been better left unkicked, and most of those missteps are returned to him with interest–but Jimbo came down town on a mission and beatings won’t stop him from getting to B. However, he is also a man with a code, dirty and selfish though it may be, and when fallout from his petty quest lands on a relative innocent he takes one last self-imposed case:
To mete out justice for the dead. Before he probably joins them.
Well now. Give me film noir and watch me sit pretty. Pass me genre fiction and I’ll show you a smile. Even so, for a handful of pages, A Fistful of Nothing had me somewhat worried. The problem came down to the style.
I don’t have a knee-jerk problem with self-published fiction–to me, good is good regardless of the source, just like bad is bad–but there are hard facts to face about this literary tsunami. In the vast majority of what I’ve read, quality of prose represents a lethal undertow ever ready to drown the unfortunate in its purpled depths. No sentence goes unflourished, no thesaurus page unturned.
Well, this is a self-published book (though judging by that cover you might be forgiven for assuming otherwise) and, when it comes to the prose, merely saying “purple” doesn’t even come close. Here, the sentences are saturated with it.
Except… after a while, you find it works.
In the same way that Steampunk encourages a certain formality of authorial tone, Glaser infuses his Dieselpunk with the jazzy cadence of the Beatniks. I made the leap from tolerance to enjoyment when I recognised my mental reference point had shifted from self-publishing’s laboured majority to Nick Mamatas’ Move Under Ground, a unique, pitch-perfect blending of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos with Kerouac’s On The Road. Maybe it’s the difference between using the purple and only having one crayon (and from this book there’s no way to know how many other colours are Glaser’s to command), but at the very least you have to admit he wields it well. Coupled to all this finger-clicking prose is, when you get down to it, a straight-forward investigation yarn in a dark, classic vein, and another highly stylised comparison leaps to mind in Frank Miller’s Sin City–but let’s be honest, there’s an excess of flattery going on here now.
A Fistful of Nothing works, but it’s also a first novel. A pretty good one, and rising from self-published waters it’s something rather special, but not without flaws. Jimbo doesn’t quite have the brute charisma of Sin City‘s Marv (big ask there, of course), nor are the supporting characters as vivid, and long before I’d reached the end the cycle of beatings delivered and received had become a little over-familiar. So too much of the vocabulary. The book boasts some genuinely great lines, but I have to admit that Kerouac was never really my thing, and even after I was on board with this I found the basic style heavy going. There’s only so many alternatives to the label gumshoe, only so many shades of purple…
This being my first taste of Dieselpunk, I can’t say if this is one man’s stylistic choice or representative of the genre as a whole. If this is a common quirk, I suspect steam will edge out diesel in the long run because to me Formality as a dominant style offers, ironically, greater flexibility of expression to a writer, while Beat more easily risks cliché (unless it just plain is one). Nevertheless, reading A Fistful of Nothing I underwent quite the sea change from my early impressions. This is a book that rewards necessary patience with exaggerated fun, but I’ll need a break before I pick up a sequel. Glaser served up rich food, and–like good is good and bad is bad–too much too soon would be too much.
But I will get hungry again. Cue the Beatnik Applause.
Click-click-click, click-click, click-click…