Fast-paced, thought-provoking and at times moving.
by Kieran Kelly
Transfixion is in the speculative fiction genre that has really come to dominate in the young adult market, and it is a good example of why the genre is popular.
Author J. Giambrone hits the ground running. The reader is not left with much time to draw breath as action piles on action. The pace never flags throughout the book which transitions from a place of surrealism and suspense through watershed moments of growing clarity. In time it reaches a climax in which concrete reality has been recovered – though only through the brave efforts of a protagonist who refuses to let go of her humanity when the entire world has turned dangerously insane.
Transfixion mines some of the same veins of disquiet that have fueled the success of the Hunger Games trilogy, but where Suzanne Collins aims for emotional effect and pathos Giambrone aims for something more elusive – a moral understanding of violent conflict. The result is a bit like what might have happened if Frantz Fanon had got hold of the script of 28 Days Later and insisted that denying the humanity of the zombies would only cause the normal people to become zombies: “There had to be a solution to win without becoming just like them.”
But the “dupes” in this book aren’t zombies – they are anti-zombies. Zombies have stood for many things in political allegory, but they almost always embody the epitome of the enemy “other”. They are implacably violent; they are usually mindless or, if not, they are utterly deranged; they are always incurable. In short, they are unquestionably legitimate targets for violence who are to be killed without compunction. In films zombies are killed for self-defence, but there is also a common tendency, first established in Dawn of the Dead, for protagonists to prolifically splatter zombie brains just in order to perform banal tasks like going from place to place.There is no reason too trivial to be worth taking the “life” of a zombie.
In short zombies are the human-shaped essence of life undeserving of life. Transfixion‘s “dupes” turn this notion on its head. These are every bit as implacably violent as any crazed zombie, but even more deadly for their ruthless and calculating rationality. For those embattled few survivors of the shock and awe of the initial onslaught of violence, the dupes are zombies. You kill them and you don’t think about it, or at least pretend not to. The dupes could literally be their brothers and sisters, but the shared humanity is forgotten by both and lost in both. One side is driven mad by a brain-altering signal, and the other side simply follows suit in many respects.
Young Kaylee Colton resists this amnesia and the disjuncture which creates a rift in humanity. In a brutal world she struggles to recreate a sense that she herself is a real person: “She was not herself, and she wasn’t sure which version of herself she wasn’t.” But, she never quite loses sight of the personhood of the other – even the knife-wielding maniac who will kill her without compunction. And she is right.
The reader is taken inside the mind of a dupe and find not the haze of hatred, but a different sense of reality. Now we are in the territory of Philip K. Dick – the science fiction author for whom reality was fragile and fungible not just in epistemological terms but in political, psychological and social terms. Under the guise of “out there” explorations of drugs and virtual reality, Dick made many astute political and social observations. He explored the significance of what academics would now refer to as a “subject position” decades before the term was coined. To put it another way, Dick’s writing and Transfixion have more in common with Battlestar Galactica than with The Matrix.
And that is the problem of the dupes. They are not different in nature. They are not inhuman. It is the mental landscape they inhabit that is different. That is not to say that their reality is somehow valid. The world they inhabit is not only ultimately senseless, it is extremely limited. The filters through which they see everything turn these human beings into remorseless killers who act like mindless zombies without the mindlessness. For this, Giambrone gleefully indicts the medium of television – the carrier signal of their derangement: “The sign on the door said “Editing,” and a sickly blue glow throbbed out from inside the dark chamber.”
Any young adult who has read this review this far should probably read Transfixion. The novel is a lot more accessible than my review and I really haven’t given any major spoilers. Despite all that I have written, it is still basically action driven and all of the political and philosophical considerations are delivered as subtext.
For adults the above also applies, but if you are thinking of acquiring it for a young person to read I have just one caution. Transfixion is very much in the soft science-fiction/speculative fiction allegorical idiom. The sense of suspense and mystery may lead more literally minded youngsters to think that the resolution will involve the standard denouement where the villain is unmasked and vanquished. This does not happen. Some will definitely find that unsatisfying, but then maybe it might cause them to reflect on the nature of such conventions.