“A Little More Human,” Fiona Maazel’s third novel, begins in the great tradition of amnesiac noir: “He came to on the back of a horse.” But Maazel is not a hard-boiled hack — she’s a dazzling prose stylist with a gift for creating characters caught in extraordinary situations that defy credulity. Imagine a situation comedy written by Phillip K. Dick or a telenovela penned by Thomas Pynchon.
Phil Snyder moonlights as a superhero impersonator. His alter ego, Brainstorm, is a gifted telepathic crime solver, and while Phil is anything but heroic, he really can read minds. Sort of. With intense focus and concentration, Phil can conjure in his mind a blackboard upon which is written the subject’s concerns. “Words. Phrases. Sometimes whole paragraphs telling him what was what. The process was always more beautiful than the result.”
Phil’s talent comes in handy in his side gig as a wannabe hero, but it proves utterly useless when he comes out of that blackout, finding himself on a horse in Staten Island, covered in blood. While Phil scrambles to piece together what happened to him, he is blackmailed with photos that implicate him in an act of sexual deviance that warps his sense of who he is and what he might be capable of.
“The stranger within was a literary concept. A Freudian concept — the unconscious. But now it was science. And now it was Phil.” This sets the stage for one of the novel’s main themes: What’s the use of being able to tap into extraordinary knowledge when you don’t know yourself?
And there is a great deal that Phil doesn’t know. Phil’s wife, Lisa, was artificially inseminated with supersperm purchased by Phil’s father without his son’s knowledge. “Phil had called what she had done adultery and fraud, though it was neither. He said he’d been cuckolded by Science.”
Phil works as a nurse’s assistant at SCET, a biotech research and rehabilitation center that caters to wounded veterans coming back from Iraq and that is not-so-secretly at the front of experimental brain surgery. SCET was founded by Phil’s parents: Sarah, who died two years ago in a car accident shrouded in mystery, and Doc, who uses his own gifts as a scientist to diagnose his encroaching dementia.
As a hedge against his accelerating deterioration, Doc hires Ada Møller as a personal assistant to help catalog the mementos of his marriage to Sarah that make his house all but uninhabitable. Ada, however, is sleeping with Phil’s best friend and coworker, Ben Neuhaus, for reasons she’d like to keep secret. Her mother, Patty, has undergone a successful heart transplant at SCET, but the medication they’ve put her on, ARA-9, “was expensive and effective only so long as Patty kept upping the dose.”
Ada needs a quick score to pay for her mother’s surgery and keep the supply of drugs flowing. She’s set her sights on Ben as an easy mark, but her willingness to go through with the scam is complicated by her growing fondness for both her beau and her employer, who gets more lost in the detritus of the past by the day.
“Doc had not seen a countertop in years. He had not seen the floor, either. He couldn’t get to the fridge or range, so he ordered in. He couldn’t get to the shower, so he sponge-bathed in the bathroom sink. He’d always been a pack rat but had kept it in check so long as Sarah was alive.”
The junk-filled house is a metaphor for his disordered mind, but amid the clutter lies a clue to solving the mystery of Phil’s blackout, Patty’s drug dependency and Sarah’s final days at SCET. That would be more than enough for most novels, but Maazel adds brain implants, love triangles, secret drug labs and a chase that leads all the way to SCET’s sister facility in Denmark.
At times this kitchen sink approach threatens to smother the story, but Maazel propels the narrative forward with her knack for evoking empathy out of the improbable and transforming coincidence into conspiracy.
“A Little More Human” is a character-driven work of literary fiction that also happens to be a thriller guided by a web of intrigue with an ending that not even a mind reader could see coming.
Ruland is the co-author of “My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor” with Keith Morris and the host of Vermin on the Mount.
Graywolf Press: 304 pp., $16 paper