Declan Burke's new novel is structured on the continuing dialogue between a novelist and his muse, the conscious with the subconscious. On the novel's surface, it crackles with wit, aphorisms, black one-liners, erudite literary allusions, popular culture references, and frequently surprising wordplay.
A subtext of Absolute Zero Cool is laced with autobiographical asides and very dark humor involving terrorism, fatherhood, hospitals, the relationship between creation and destruction in parable, and much more. I highly recommend it and I'll be giving it five stars at Amazon.
Sometime back I reviewed Writers Dreaming (link), a remarkable collection of essays by authors who are led by their muse. Many of them are literary but genre crime novelists speak of their muse as well, such notables as Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton.
The muse inspires, but it is up to the craftsman to rein-in the muse, to restore balance, to fashion those inspirations into a workable text. Sometimes you have to "kill your darlings," as Faulkner wrote of self-editing (link). But we know of novels which were entirely crafted and we know of novels written entirely at the beckoning of the muse.
For instance, Lawrence Block, craftsman extraordinaire, always fashions a solid novel whether he is writing one of his mystery/thrillers or soft-core pornography. In his autobiographical Step by Step: A Pedestrian Memoir, Block reveals that he once wrote a novel entitled Random Walk, dictated by his muse in a spectacular way that had never happened to him before.
Although already well established, Block could not find a publisher to take this one. Eventually the novel was published and went nowhere. Some readers think it is the best he has written, while many others think it unreadable. The muse insisted, and he gave it total control.
Most great authors put a lot of themselves into their works. Burke's good natured bantering with his wife (via his novel) seems autobiographical and serves as lighter comic relief against the darker humor of the narrative. But it would be a mistake to think that the dark ideas argued by the muse (Karlsson or Billy or simply K, Kafka-like) are those of Burke or his unnamed protagonist. The muse simply serves as a dark counterpoint.
Burke himself does not seem dark at all, and if McCarthy's second ex-wife is to believed, McCarthy wasn't dark either, writing his darkest works, including Outer Dark, during the brightest, happiest days of their marriage. The work has a life apart from its author.
Burke's muse quotes Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark in here, and Corinthians as well. Rinthy, one of McCathy's earth mothers, the eternal feminine, is a sobriquet for Corinthians, and quite possibly verses 13:1-13 are inferred. Outer Dark is a part of McCarthy's early trilogy concerning the evolutionary fall of consciousness into id-dominated animal man, bringing with it the knowledge of death, recursive thinking, and powers of language.
The dark trinity in McCarthy's novel represents the furies, the dark side of human nature, still lurking in us as well. Their sections in the novel are in italics, suggesting that they are a part of the protagonists' own subconscious.
Rinthy is in search of her child, which is to be killed. Killing your babies had a different significance back then. The father fears that the son will eclipse him, which is what the eclipse scene in the novel is all about. The outer dark belies an inner darkness. Dr. Jay Ellis, in his brilliant book-length study of McCarthy, No Place For Home, demonstrates in great detail how McCarthy entwined this simple fable with his personal history and human universals to create a masterpiece of Art.
Whether McCarthy did this through craftsmanship or through the machinations of his muse is hard to say. In the end, it hardly matters. The wonderful thing is, somehow he did it.
Absolute Zero Cool is also deep, much deeper than I expected it to be, perhaps deeper than the author at first intended. Some time ago, not having yet read the novel, I blogged about his change of the title, from "Killing Your Babies" to "Absolute Zero Cool."
Seems to me, the title Absolute Zero Cool refers to that state at which everything is frozen, "the universe set back to its default state of cold and darkness," as the text says, but if it be "cool" in the vernacular sense of "under control" or a subjectively "OK" condition, then an observer is needed. A God, a George Burns or a Morgan Freeman, a Signourey Weaver, an alien in Irish racing green. Some kind of higher consciousness has to observe in order to make that judgment.
This is a meaty novel and I will read again soon--perhaps, again and again.
Absolute Zero Cool is a literary novel and a darkly humorous work of philosophy. It easily falls into that sub-category of intellectual noir along with such as: Clancy Martin's How To Sell; Terence Blacker's Kill Your Darlings; James Hynes' The Lecturer's Tale and Next; Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil; and Craig Johnson's Hell Is Empty.
Dante is well served here, all the way around.