Ryan Boudinot - The world was full of precious garbage: post-apocalyptic satirical explosion, touching on themes of overconsumption, Big Brother, technology, selfhood, and mysticism: clone orgies, messianic clone babies, humans who can "hack" other humans a sentient, hostile glacier, a refrigerator that never runs out of food, a masturbating ghost
Ryan Boudinot, Blueprints of the Afterlife, Grove Press, 2012.
"It is the Afterlife. The end of the world is a distant, distorted memory called “the Age of F***ed Up Shit.” A sentient glacier has wiped out most of North America. Medical care is supplied by open-source nanotechnology, and human nervous systems can be hacked.
Abby Fogg is a film archivist with a niggling feeling that her life is not really her own. She may be right. Al Skinner is a former mercenary for the Boeing Army, who’s been dragging his war baggage behind him for nearly a century. Woo-jin Kan is a virtuoso dishwasher with the Hotel and Restaurant Management Olympics medals to prove it. Over them all hovers a mysterious man named Dirk Bickle, who sends all these characters to a full-scale replica of Manhattan under construction in Puget Sound. An ambitious novel that writes large the hopes and anxieties of our time—climate change, social strife, the depersonalization of the digital age—Blueprints of the Afterlife will establish Ryan Boudinot as an exceptional novelist of great daring."
“Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife is probably the strangest post-apocalyptic novel in ages.”— io9
“The best science fiction takes what we know about technology and humanity and extends it... Blueprints of the Afterlife does just this—only instead of space stations and robots, [Boudinot] clocks the way our perceptions and experiences have already been shaped by technology... Blueprints calls to mind Jonathan Lethem’s recent Chronic City and the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, as much as it does sci-fi predecessors like Philip K. Dick or even Cory Doctorow. But while it's plenty easy to find other novels to compare Blueprints to, the book offers a completely singular reading experience.”—Alison Hallett
“Digital where Brave New World is merely analog, Blueprints of the Afterlife makes both 1984 and the Book of Revelation seem like yesterday's news.”—Tom Robbins
“Take every high voltage future-shock you can imagine about life as it’s shaping up in the twenty-first century, process it through one of the smartest and funniest and weirdly compassionate sensibilities you’ll find on this crazy planet at this crazy moment, and you get a novel named Blueprints of the Afterlife. This guy Ryan Boudinot is the WikiLeaks of the zeitgeist.”—Robert Olen Butler
“Blueprints of the Afterlife is chewy with a delighted disgust, and suggests those myths of the near future—to adopt JG Ballard's trope—that are really truths about right now.”—Will Self
“I figured I would like the book. I didn’t figure it would be as expansive, as imaginative, as powerful, and as quaking as it is. Seriously. It’s awesome.”—Matthew Simmons
“Ryan Boudinot once again proves himself as one of America's most talented young writers... Dark, funny, and smart, this post-apocalyptic dystopian book is as complex as it is original and entertaining.”—Largehearted Boy
“What happens when the technology we unleash through the Internet becomes our physical reality, and we become its content?... The sheer imagination with which Boudinot’s tale unwinds is stunning.... You could orgasm with laughter.”—Alle C. Hall
"It’s the end of the world as we know it, and everyone feels a bit out of synch with their surroundings.
After getting his feet wet with a collection of comic short stories (The Littlest Hitler, 2006) and ruminating on youth in revolt in his debut novel, Boudinot (Misconception, 2009) goes all in with a Murakami-inspired fit of speculative madness that marries the postmodernist streak of Neal Stephenson to the laconic humor of The Big Lebowski. It starts in the future and, par for the course, humanity is screwed. Survivors find themselves in a warped version of reality known collectively as “The Age of Fucked Up Shit.” How bad? The continent has been raked over by Malaspina, a sentient, roving glacier and her marauding polar bears. Into this crazy-quilt scenario Boudinot introduces a semi-heroic cast. Woo-jin Kan is an Olympic medal–winning dishwasher who gets a note from his future brain instructing him to write a book called How to Love People. “It’s one of the only books the Last Dude has to read, so make it really good,” writes Woo-Jin’s future self. Abby Fogg is an archivist who is hired by a mysterious string-puller named Dirk Bickle to deconstruct an archive of pre-FUS material, held by a former pop star named Klee Asparagus and her army of clones. Interviews with software designer Luke Piper punctuate the story, flashing back to a drug-fueled hypnotherapy session that inspired the “Bionet,” a sort of social media for the mind. Some of the funniest dialogue comes from an actor named Neethan F. Jordan, whose rote descriptions of his TV series might well serve as the polar opposite of this bizarre, imaginative novel. “It’s a thought-provoking series, featuring state-of-the-art effects and wall-to-wall action, with more than a little tenderness,” opines Jordan. Thought-provoking, beyond a doubt.
Challenging, messy and funny fiction for readers looking for something way beyond space operas and swordplay." - Kirkus Reviews
"Woo-Jin is not fit for this world, or at least he’s managed to be even worse off than the world is a century from now, having just emerged from an era dubbed “The Age of Fucked-Up Shit.” Though the apocalypse remains back story, its aftershocks have not. Woo-Jin lives in a barren Pacific Northwest, in a trailer with his obese foster sister Patsy, whose folds of flesh serve as an organ farm for the government. Woo-Jin suffers from “ennui,” which is the wrong word for massive empathy attacks, in which his body spasms in fits of mind-melded suffering. Woo-Jin is one of many characters—Abby Fogg is an archivist tasked with resurrecting pre-FUS documents, and Rocco is her hacker boyfriend, who disrupts Bionet, a company that uses implants to download medical care to the ill. Meanwhile, in Puget Sound, the government is building a replica of pre-apocalypse Manhattan.
You would need to grow several post-nuclear- meltdown hands to have enough fingers to count all of the post-apocalyptic novels that have come out in the last decade. You can probably thank Bush and Wall Street for that, and you probably should thank them. Whether it’s Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, the weird thing about this trend is that the books have actually been good.
Add Blueprints to the list. Batshit in the best way, pitch-perfectly condemning of corporate callousness and very funny, Blueprints does more than provide a morality tale about the extreme conclusions of contemporary excess. It also provides a fairly stirring critique of the resilience and perniciousness of nostalgia in the face of so much fucked-up shit." - Jonathan Messinger
"It seems out of order, at the beginning of this review, to state that Ryan Boudinot, who writes about film for The Rumpus, is my new favorite author, but his second novel, Blueprints of the Afterlife, reads a bit like a genetic graft between David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System and Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. Blueprints of the Afterlife is a book that I will unequivocally press into the hands of any who approach me for a recommendation in 2012, for between its covers Boudinot lets loose a cast of brilliantly colorful characters acting across a bizarre chain of events to tell the story about how the world ends.
Open onto a post-apocalyptic tableau – a deserted, garbage flecked airstrip in the Pacific Northwest where 25-year-old championship dishwasher Woo-jin Kan makes his way home from his job at Il Italian Joint, his primary point of concern (up until his discovery of the dead girl) being whether to eat the three quarters of a hamburger and gravy fries he rescued from the trash at work or whether to bring it home to his foster sister, Patsy, a 400-pound behemoth and a pharmer, who while usurping the couch in their shared trailer, grows tissues on her body for the U.S. government.
Despite the fact that Patsy’s general heft, demeanor, and all around likableness cause her to most closely resemble Jabba the Hut, Woo-jin cares very much for his foster sister. In fact, he cares deeply for everyone, so deeply in fact that he is prone to epileptic fits of empathy. It is during one of these, that he enters a vision in which his future self tells him he has to write a book about how to love people, one of the few books that will be read by The Last Dude, who assembles rocks in the Arizona desert to spell out a message explaining why humans went extinct.
Abby Fogg is a digital archivist who is hired to go to the estate of the aging performer Kylie Asparagus to retrieve and restore a lost interview concerning Nick Fedderly, the inventor of a device that may or may not have been the catalyst for the age of Fucked Up Shit (FUS) and, subsequently, the end of the world. Abby, as of yet, is blissfully unaware that this career opportunity, along with everything else that has occurred in her life since she first met him college, has been minutely engineered by her boyfriend Rocco, hacked via the Bionet, the next phase of the Internet in which our entire nervous systems are available online.
Neethan F. Jordan
It's difficult to describe just how over-the-top the character of Neethan F. Jordan, an actor who plays Dr. Uri Borden on the hit television series, Stella Artaud: Newman Assasin, is without invoking Boudinot's own description:
“Neethan models a pair of black sunglasses, prototypes from his line. His face tingles from a facial. Two Altoids effervesce on his tongue. The product holding his hair in a swept-back wave is composed of organic materials harvested from ten countries, six of them war zones. Black pants, jacket, leather shoes crafted by hand in a little-known region of Italy where livestock still wander dirt roads, a white starched shirt with the top button unbuttoned. Neethan is a tall dude, six-eight, and watching him come out of a limo is like watching a cleverly designed Japanese toy robot arachnid emerge from a box…”
The F. stands for exactly what you think it does.
Interspersed throughout Blueprints of the Afterlife are the recorded interviews with Luke Piper, Nick Fedderly’s childhood best friend, whose life pre-dates the FUS and who very well may be partially responsible for its onset. These are the very interviews that Abby is purportedly sent to Victoria to recover, interviews in which Luke recounts his childhood and Nick’s disappearance into the shadowy Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential.
These few are primary characters in a psychedelic cast that, along with a complex layering of story, will make you laugh out loud, all the while challenging your faculties with the task of piecing together Boudinot’s puzzle. There are androids and clones, wee software development monks, and a giant celestial head; there is a marauding sentient glacier that wipes out the major cities in North America; and there is a exact replica of Manhattan emerging in Puget Sound.
Ridiculously funny (and at times, disturbing), Blueprints of the Afterlife is a thematically strong work of fiction that skewers our culture of conspicuous consumption and warns against technology’s continued encroachment into our personal lives. As an added bonus, it happens to be written by Ryan Boudinot, who could probably author a hot water heater’s technical manual that would keep me transfixed from start to finish." - Mark Flanagan
"The best science fiction takes what we know about technology and humanity and extends it, finding a throughline from what is happening to what could happen. Ryan Boudinot's inventive Blueprints of the Afterlife does just this—only instead of space stations and robots, he clocks the way our perceptions and experiences have already been shaped by technology, and extrapolates our increasingly fuzzy grasp on reality to loopy new heights.
What happens if we keep outsourcing our brain functions to computers? How can we tell what's real when we don't begin to understand the forces shaping our world? With convincing enough simulacra—or compelling enough TV—will we even care what's real or not? These questions are cheerfully chopped and jumbled throughout Afterlife, as three characters (a dishwasher, a film scholar, and a former soldier) struggle to understand the post-post-apocalyptic world in which they find themselves. Afterlife is as resolutely entertaining as it is smart, a high/low mash-up that includes, among other things:
• A to-scale replica of New York City, built on Bainbridge Island
• Clone orgies
• Messianic clone babies
• #An Xavier Institute-esque school for gifted youngsters
• Humans who can "hack" other humans
• A sentient, hostile glacier
• A refrigerator that never runs out of food
• A masturbating ghost
Blueprints calls to mind Jonathan Lethem's recent Chronic City and the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, as much as it does sci-fi predecessors like Philip K. Dick or even Cory Doctorow. But while it's plenty easy to find other novels to compare Blueprints to, the book offers a completely singular reading experience: Boudinot balances bold imagination with a prose style that drifts comfortably between casual chattiness and high-concept speculation. "She yearned for plot but instead absurdity after absurdity had been thrown before her," Boudinot writes of one character, "absurdities that alluded to obscured purposes." The same applies to the experience of plowing forward through this novel, trying to figure out what's real, and what real even means. It's when Afterlife tempts readers to ask these questions—and baits them to answer—that Boudinot's hilarious and strange book proves its worth." - Alison Hallett
"Near the end of Ryan Boudinot’s bracingly weird new novel a man asks his girlfriend, an editor, about the book that she’s working on.
“It’s about the beginning of a new world,” she says. “There’s a rampaging glacier in it. Clones. Giant heads that appear in the sky.”
Her companion responds, “One of those.” “Blueprints of the Afterlife” has within it, in fact, all of those things. Its dystopian plot also has a world-champion dishwasher whose sister’s body is being used to grow and harvest donor tissues. (Penises are growing on her breasts.) Corporations have extended their product lines in ways that allow Mr. Boudinot to write sentences like “His hand crawled inside his jacket to flip the safety on his Coca-Cola.”
This novel is, in a word, freaky. Woo-jin, the dishwasher, finds a young woman’s body. It is taken away by the police, and he finds it again. But the first body is still in the morgue.
The dead woman, Abby Fogg, turns up yet again, alive this time. She is, as it happens, in “superposition.” This quantum physics term describes a particle, like an electron, that can exist in multiple states, the foundation of the dead-and-not-dead possibilities described in the parable of Schrödinger’s cat. She is Abby, but not- Abby as well; she is Schrödinger’s hipster. In this world people can be reprogrammed, their brains and lives hacked and played. They can receive messages from the future and from that giant head in the sky, and reality itself gets remixed. “A+B=C is not the way to go here,” one character explains.
So duct-tape yourself to the front of this roller coaster and enjoy the ride. Or not. Remember the scene in “Back to the Future” when Marty McFly introduces rock ’n’ roll to Chuck Berry’s cousin? Time paradoxes have a kind of fizzy fun to them that can give you a headache.
The novel, Mr. Boudinot’s second, is written in the genre-bending style known as slipstream science fiction and has the cinematic feel of the “Matrix” films and the oddball flop “Southland Tales.” Some readers will be put off by the relentless Roman-candle bursts of imagination within a wandering story. Abby seems to be. Trained in preserving and restoring ancient movies, she “yearned for plot but instead absurdity after absurdity had been thrown before her, absurdities that alluded to obscured purposes.”
In Mr. Boudinot’s world humanity has all but extinguished itself in a blaze of environmental disaster and a revolt of cyborg slaves. This apocalypse, which goes by a name that cannot be repeated here, is described as a time when roving bands of cyborg “newmen” slaughtered people and were slaughtered by humans in corporate armies. One former soldier recalls his companies, “Boeing, Exxon Mobil for a while ... then News Corp.”
It is an apocalypse of synergistic losses: of species, of environmental balance, then of whole cities, large disasters extrapolating inevitably from smaller ones. “There was a time when we lived on streets where we knew our neighbors’ names,” one character recalls, “but now we were all strangers isolated in our condos late at night, speaking across distances to our lonely, electronic communities.”
It’s already started, in other words, and the enemy is us.
The horrors of this future imperfect and all the people in it have the feel of a digital puppet show, with someone pulling the strings. Could it be “the Last Dude,” mystically living in the desert with a magical fridge and laying out a huge message in rocks? And what does his emissary, Dirk Bickle, mean when he calls himself a curator?
Through it all — post-apocalyptic world, or simulacrum, or whatever — Mr. Boudinot dazzles, goofs around and sends the plot curving in on itself. Abby is sent to work with a superannuated pop star and finds that the star’s army of clones puts on a show recreating the most intimate moments of Abby’s visit, followed by a show within that show. Meanwhile Manhattan, destroyed in the profanely named apocalypse, is being rebuilt on an island in Puget Sound based on blueprints drawn up by a visionary draftsman. But to what end? To restart the world, or to repeat a cycle of creation and destruction?
“The world was full of precious garbage,” Mr. Boudinot writes, and at first the thought means, simply, there’s a lot of stuff that’s been thrown away that can be recycled or reclaimed. The process of trying to do that turns out to be the true business of the human race: rebooting humanity, and hacking life itself to create a kind of hybrid of the virtual and the real that can go forth and multiply across the universe.
This is, then, the afterlife, the life that comes after but also a kind of death, with plenty of death and destruction to keep things lively. The violence is horrific, and some of the dialogue could have been transcribed from a first-person shooter video game. But under it all is a fierce literary imagination, building the kinds of worlds that William Gibson used to write before he discovered the present; it is warmed by the kind of offbeat, riffing humor that has suffused the works of Neal Stephenson and Gary Shteyngart, with Chuck Palahniuk’s cartoonish gore and Neil Gaiman’s creepy otherworlds blended in.
One of those, yes. But utterly its own thing." - John Schwartz
"In 1989, the science fiction author Bruce Sterling codified a literary phenomenon that had been bubbling under, generally unobserved. He fastened on certain intermittent, unpredictable eruptions of fiction that blend
ed highbrow mainstream literary virtues and techniques with the lowbrow tropes and tools of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to produce an odd kind of narrative whose most notable effect was cognitive estrangement, overlaying the familiar world with a patina of weirdness. He dubbed the new form "slipstream," deeming it the defining mode for the postmodern landscape of the late twentieth century.
In the subsequent two decades, slipstream fiction has been relentlessly parsed, hailed, and reviled, with a nascent canon forming and conferences dedicated to the study of the mode. A handy guide to the whole checkered history is Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, assembled by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel.
Nowadays, the notion that authors raised and marketed outside the genre sandbox might like to play with the genre's toys, with mixed results, is so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable. When the various lists compiling the best novels of 2011 feature such writers as Karen Russell, Tom Perrotta, Lev Grossman, Haruki Murakami, Patrick DeWitt, and Téa Obreht, the triumph -- or at least, partial grudging acceptance -- of slipstream fiction seems undeniable.
Born in 1972, Ryan Boudinot is young enough to have grown up with slipstream as his mother's milk. He's a second- or even third-generation slipstreamer himself, and it's interesting to see how easily the mode fits him, how natural and unstrained his splicing of mimetic with surreal and science-fictional feels. His work illustrates the dictum that to channel the zeitgeist accurately, you need to go pretty much round the bend of sanity, logic, and good taste.
Half the stories in Boudinot's first book, The Littlest Hitler, chronicle the omnipresent consumerist, media-saturated landscape we all inhabit, but with weirdness parameters dialed up to eleven. The title piece recounts the misfortunes befalling a lad who decides to dress up as the Führer for Halloween. "On Sex and Relationships" might be an Edward Albee play for our new century's more exotic debaucheries. In "Bee Beard," a passive-aggressive office manager starts a new trend of live facial appurtenances. "Blood Relatives" is a diptych involving suburban cannibalism and serial killing. "Drugs and Toys" involves a drugstore owner who intrudes into the lives of his customers in disturbing Orwellian fashion. And "The Flautist" is cousin to William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man. The masterpiece in this vein is "So Little Time," which limns the junk-culture life of three adolescents. It reads like Harold and Kumar's adaptation of Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, or a Beavis-and-Butt-head attempt to summarize a Jonathan Lethem story they had skimmed while high on caffeine and sugar.
But a different quartet points to a fuller fusion of disparate storytelling modes. "Contaminant" involves zombie workers in a frozen-pea factory. "Civilization" details, Robert Sheckley-style, a future when parenticide is a state mandate. Taking on Shirley Jackson's classic "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts," about demiurgic forces of good and evil loose in the world, "The Sales Team" posits a world where salesmanship has become a pointless engine of anarchic destruction. Finally, most effectively, "Written by Machines" is William Gibson out of Douglas Coupland, involving computer geniuses, rogue software and office anomie.
Boudinot's style is light, breezy, and colloquial, hiding much craft and thought behind its addictive surface. He's adept at first-person narratives where the idiosyncratic voice of the protagonist is hypnotically perfect. And despite inhabiting wastelands of terror, decay, authoritarianism, and aimlessness, his characters exhibit a manic, adaptive élan vital.
Boudinot plainly sensed further potential in his masterstroke of "So Little Time," for he returns to that venue, tone, and subject matter -- with a twist -- in his first novel, Misconception. In fact, the book forms part of the same continuity: Dick Dills is the narrator of the earlier short tale, and he's name-checked as an acquaintance of our new protagonist, Cedar Rivers.
Misconception opens with a similar first-person narrative by teenage Cedar, a bright, disaffected lad mired in the early-1980s cultural swamp. Cedar finds a soulmate in the equally offbeat Kat Daniels, and their halting, awkward love affair takes them across strange and painful terrain, before disintegrating in a tragedy of Cedar's making.
But we do not get all this straightforwardly, for Boudinot has cleverly imposed a labyrinthine schematic on his novel which mirrors the slippery treachery of all memories. At the end of the first section we cut startlingly to the present, when an adult Cedar and Kat are having a reunion for the first time since their adolescence. Cedar is a doctor, Kat a writer. (Her books even receive nice blurbs from one "Ryan Boudinot.") And she has contacted her old boyfriend through Facebook to show him her memoir of their youth, the first part of which we now realize we have just read. Kat has recreated Cedar's youthful self as a persona through which to relate still-painful history. Cedar at first objects, taking umbrage at this usurpation of his identity and voice, finding inconsistencies in the text. But, continuing to read, he is drawn into the organically perfect feel of the memoir, as are we. Alternate sections are in Kat's voice, and even her mother's.
Boudinot's tone and angle of attack recall nothing so much as the graphic novels of Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge. The Pacific Northwest setting particularly evokes the Buddy Bradley saga. The meticulous visual specificity, the defensive irony that masks pain, the wry melancholy, the shallow, pop-culture-laden wordliness of the characters, the screwed-up white-trash lives -- it all cries out for rendering in nine panels per page. But this is not to slight Boudinot's accomplishments as a prose writer, merely to identify a generational alliance. He inhabits his characters as only a traditional novelist can, conducting us through their misery and uncertainty from the inside out, simultaneously depicting life as absurd and ineffable.
With his new book, Blueprints of the Afterlife, Boudinot takes this finely wrought but perhaps thematically underpowered mimetic-absurdist vehicle and drops in a rocket-powered speculative engine. If Misconception took off from "So Little Time," Blueprints launches hypersonically from "Written by Machines."
The bulk of the novel unfolds about a century from now, in a postapocalyptic future barely emerging from an interregnum called the Age of Fucked Up Shit. We will witness at several removes, in the form of interview transcripts with one Luke Piper, the birth of FUS, an enigmatic era whose full meaning and dimensions Boudinot sternly and bravely refuses to fully resolve. With its leitmotif of "superposition," the physics riff most familiar from the Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment, this novel pinwheels out multivalent explanations for almost everything, demanding that the reader navigate his or her own best-determined path of causality through the sly and shifting narrative.
But do not take that to mean that Blueprints of the Afterlife is an impenetrable nest of hypertext. Far from it. Its linear propulsion, studded with bravura set pieces, is compulsively readable in the manner of any consumer-friendly epic fantasy novel, overstuffed with unforgettable freakish characters (in the Age of FUS, freakish is the new normal); laugh-out-loud or cringe-worthy incidents; and rafts of genuinely innovative scientific, spiritual, and philosophical speculations delivered in sleek and colorful prose.
The bulk of the book takes place in Boudinot's patented stomping grounds, the Pacific Northwest: Portland, Seattle, and environs. But because the planet has undergone a welter of wars, plagues, industrial catastrophes, eco-collapses (including a sentient migrating killer glacier named Malaspina), and robot (or "newman") revolts, resulting in a depopulated globe (eighty percent of the nine billion humans have died) strewn with odd and dangerous detritus ("the granularity of byproducts"), the Pacific Northwest of the novel is hardly our own. Cue slipstream's strange flavors.
For one thing, this post-scarcity society is reconstructing the glories of vanished Manhattan on Washington's Bainbridge Island. The builders are using a pre-FUS digital scan: "involving some really far-out software and a butt-load of satellites, [it] had been performed under quasilegal circumstances by a company called Argus Industries, who'd intended to replicate New York City for a full-immersion gaming environment." But not content with mere infrastructure, the creators are populating the simulacrum with volunteers whose personalities are overlaid with those of the original dead inhabitants, so that one of our heroines, Abby Fogg, sinks dangerously down into the life of Sylvie Yarrow, book company editor. As this occurs late in the book, after we have become ensorcelled by Boudinot's visionary telling, we are able to see our twenty-first-century New York as the strangest venue of all. Chalk up another slipstream victory.
Mention here of Abby Fogg, an expert data retrievalist forced to barter with a lunatic aged pop star called Kylee Asparagus and her 600 cloned consorts, allows me to belatedly trot out some of the rest of the cast, whose tribulations structure the telling.
We have Woo-jin, simpleton Zen master of the art of dishwashing, who lives with his stepsister Patsy, a mammothly obese woman who rents her body out as a spare parts factory.
There's Al Skinner, elderly retired Boeing-employed soldier of the Newman Wars, intent on avenging his dead family.
Abby Fogg's boyfriend Rocco is a Bionet hacker. Given that every privileged human is threaded with medical software and implants, it's possible to tap into an individual's telemetry and gain control of the body's functions.
Let us not forget Neethan F. Jordan, a Schwarzenegger-style media star who suddenly finds himself sent on a humbling vision quest.
And Luke Piper, our contemporary, emerges as a likable Everyman through whom the vast paradigm shift is channeled.
But this small list does not even mention the Last Dude, a shaman at the end of time; the Ambassador, ET's representative on Earth; Dirk Bickle, recruiter for the Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential; and dozens of other misfits and eccentrics.
Blueprints of the Afterlife exists in a shining lineage that extends right back ultimately to William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, the novel that taught us all how to conflate esoteric conspiracy theory with history with lowbrow pop culture with surrealism and absurdity with transgressive assaults on propriety and the bourgeoisie. (Boudinot's portrayal of sexual matters is heavily porno-fied, in a knowing manner that dissects the sleaze without completely killing it.) Everyone working in this mode, from Thomas Pynchon to Ishmael Reed, from Robert Anton Wilson to Douglas Rushkoff, from Will Self to Matt Ruff, is a scion of Ol' Bill Lee, the exterminator of certainty and security.
A parallel strain in Boudinot's novel, deriving from a Founding Father slightly antedating Burroughs, is the Phildickian one. As you might have guessed from the description of the Manhattan simulacrum, Boudinot is intimately concerned with what makes a human, and how falsity and inauthenticity are introduced or invited into our lives. Certainly the keenest example of this is the perversion that Rocco and others indulge in: hijacking other people and running them like automatons from scripts. It's Dick's ultimate nightmare of human-into-android. As well, the various manifestations of the Last Dude which the characters encounter read like passages straight out of Dick's own Exegesis.
Boudinot's novel, with near-Neal Stephensonian intricacy and panache, is a brave attempt to forecast the "afterlife" subsequent to our culture's imminent, nigh-inevitable collapse. Yet it's no preachy tract, but rather a glorious carnival of errors, terrors, and numinous possibilities. Boudinot's approach is that of boy genius Nick Fedderly, who says to Luke Piper -- after he's shot him with a living bullet that forcibly installs the beta version of Bionet into Luke's body -- "I'm not asking you to believe me right now. I'm asking you to come with me and discover what it is you truly believe." - Paul Di Filippo
"The world has, once again, come to an end, but if that’s become a cliché, Ryan Boudinot seems to have flung his arms in the air and yelled let ‘em come. His recently released Blueprints of the Afterlife has every cliché there is and the result is a roller coaster of hysteria and pathos, the clichés injected with pure adrenalin and a touch of lysergic acid. We’ve had global warming, we’ve had the battle with the cyborgian newmans against the human armies, sponsored, DFW-style, by the likes of Boeing and Coca Cola (who evidently moved from soft drinks to arms manufacturing for a brief stint). We have super-smart drugs and hyped-up nanotechnology and life extensions and cloning and conspiracy theory from hell via a mysterious institution known as The Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential all set in a world just post The Age of Fucked Up Shit.
But somehow Boudinot holds this mayhem together and injects a fresh jolt of electricity into the melee, maintaining several fast-paced narratives and a cast of well-rounded and highly sympathetic characters even if one of them is a 100-year plus uber soldier and a dishwasher who has received an Olympic medal for his suds prowess.
The apocalypse has been with us since The Book of Revelations was penned (and probably well before that) but there seems to be a plethora of recent apocalyptic books appearing from North America. Boudinot’s book sits comfortably alongside the surreal dystopias of David Ohle’s The Age of Sinatra, Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Matthew Derby’s Super Flat Times and Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars amongst others.
“I think an apocalypse is an efficient way for the imagination to cope with insurmountable problems,” says the Seattle-based Boudinot. “It’s actually a really easy way out. A really boring novel would be one in which the various nations of the world, through painstaking negotiations and countless hours of trial and error through research, come up with a reasonable way to confront global warming. An exciting novel is one in which entire continents are in flames and a choice few (we always flatter ourselves to imagine that we would be among these choice few) find a way to salvation. Apocalyptic narratives are about individual choices resulting in survival, whereas what’s needed to resolve an actual apocalypse is collective decision making on an unfathomably complicated scale.”
J.G. Ballard aside, this seems to be a strongly North American tendency. Does this have something to do with Puritanical roots? The aftermath of the Cold War?
“I think it has to do with intense, underlying guilt for consuming more than our fair share of the earth's resources,” Boudinot replies. “Apocalypse narratives are methods of cultural self-flagellation. But before you pin all this on North America, what about that great post-apocalyptic trilogy of Mad Max films?”
The Max trilogy, the first of which appeared in 1979 directed by George Miller, is broadly considered one of the classics of dystopian cinema and was a purely Australian production and featured the countries already blasted and ominous landscape. Boudinot has favored the apocalyptic in books and movies since childhood.
“Well, in addition to Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, there’s another Aussie film I’m fond of called The Quiet Earth. It haunted me as a kid. And the book I kept reading between age 12 and 15 was Stephen King’s The Stand. I don’t remember much of the gore from that book at all, but I do remember these wonderfully poignant scenes of various characters banding together and realizing they needed one another.”
A cornerstone of Afterlife is the bizarre mission of building a full-scale replica of a presumably devastated Manhattan in Puget Sound. Boudinot has commented elsewhere of his sense of horror in finding Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York while he were still rebuilding Manhattan in his book, but there are also hints of Being John Malkovitch with his cloned Federicos (which included an extraordinary clone orgy).
“When I exited the theater after seeing Being John Malkovich I had a smile on my face that I literally couldn’t control for a good 15 minutes. I believe my wife and I went shopping right after we saw it, and I was just giggling and grinning, unbelievably happy. The primary reason I voted for Al Gore in 2000 was that he mentioned that Malkovich was his favorite movie. I love Kaufman’s wavelength. Synecdoche is a masterpiece that will be studied a hundred years from now. The narrative architecture of his films is astounding.”
Unsurprisingly, given Boudinot’s penchant for the bizarre, another filmic touchstone is David Lynch.
“I can’t really overstate Lynch's importance to me, as a writer but also as a resident of the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “I first discovered him in high school, with Blue Velvet. No, I guess I saw Dune before that, but I guess that doesn’t count. I grew up in a rural part of Washington state and gravitated to weird books, movies, etc, so when Twin Peaks came out, I freaked out hard. A group of friends and I sought out his movies, driving to Bellingham to check out Eraserhead on VHS from the Western Washington University Library. During the one week that Wild At Heart played in my hometown (Mount Vernon), this group of friends and I went to every single matinee showing. We watched it seven days in a row. I worked for a time at Amazon and the pinnacle of my experience there was getting to have lunch with Lynch with a group of other editors one time. It’s an hour of my life I treasure dearly. I asked him how he was enjoying his chicken. He said ‘Fantastic! How's your pasta?’”
The Age of Fucked Up Shit isn’t a singular apocalypse – it’s an amalgamation, a cocktail from hell. That we’re gnawing on the jugular of the planet is beyond dispute leading one to wonder just how pessimistic Boudinot really is.
“It really depends. My mood changes,” he says. “One thing that’s really curious to me, though, is that this ‘cocktail from hell,’ as you put it, is happening at a time when our ability to understand and engineer our way out of it has never been greater. Think about it – what if the ancient Greeks, through some rudimentary technology of their era, had unwittingly destroyed the earth? Our capacity to understand and solve this set of problems we’ve devised seems to be keeping pace with the damage we’re doing. The weird thing is that we’re either choosing to not do what’s necessary to resolve climate change etc, or we’re incapable of making a choice. If civilization is actively choosing not to immediately halt all combustion of fossil fuels, then perhaps there is a deeper reason we’re fucking with the planet so blatantly. Maybe our purpose is to push ourselves to a point of global environmental crisis so that, while combating that crisis, we develop tools that enable us to spread life to other places in the heavens. On the other hand, maybe we are just a really, really stupid species.”
Another bizarre fact of life in the Afterlife is the process of Embodiment, an extension of game-playing technology that allows ‘DJs’ to override the nervous systems of ‘players’. The result is reminiscent of the fate of some of the characters in DFW’s Infinite Jest. It also hints at elements of Philip K. Dick. Are we already embodied?
“That's a great question. I sort of got that idea from an old video game called The Sims (I guess it’s not that old). In the game you design an avatar and have them go about the business of everyday life. My wife and I played it briefly in the late ’90s, and stopped playing after we started to look at our own lives in terms of the game. Interacting with other people to improve our ‘social’ score, etc. I suppose there’s some Infinite Jest in there, too. Any time one feels trapped in a routine, that’s basically the same as being embodied, I think.”
Although Boudinot states that it was not his intention The Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential has a strong whiff of Scientology or Mormonism.
“I had no intention of drawing a parallel between Scientology or Mormonism, mostly because I know very little about those religions,” Boudinot claims. “I’m interested in this notion, popular in young adult fiction, that there’s some secret organization that will be the only ones who recognize how special you really are, recruit you, respect you, and show you all sorts of incredible things. I suspect those fantasies have something to do with the systemic failures of the American public education system. Like, ‘Oh, if only some cool super-secret brotherhood that understands how the world is really operating would take me under their wing!’"
Amidst the various narratives, on of the most gripping is an interrogation of a key player called Luke Piper, which leads one to wonder whether he is in the grips of a secret government organization or simply being treated in an asylum. But Boudinot either can’t, or won’t, give this away, claiming simply that: “I don’t know.”
As an adjunct to the book, Boudinot’s website features a plethora of visual material concocted by a friend of Boudinot’s named Nate Manny. “I’ve known Nate for 20 years,” he says. “We met at The Evergreen State College as freshmen, and were in a band together in Olympia for three years. He was always the visual guy, I was always the word guy, and he influenced my creativity at a pivotal time. He went on to play guitar in a very well-loved Seattle rock band, The Murder City Devils, releasing a bunch of albums on Sub Pop. Now he has a design company called 51eggs and is doing some really great stuff. He designed the cover of the book, as well.”
The first line of Blueprints of the Afterlife runs: “the world was full of precious garbage” and the detritus of the end-times runs through this book like molten noir, but despite the bizarre scenarios Boudinot paints (one of the characters is deliberately massively obese in order to grow spare body parts for others in a gross, and painful, process of cell generation – the only way in this fucked up world she can earn an income) it is the sheer humanity of the characters that somehow struggles through this morass of “precious garbage.” - Ashley Crawford
"What an inspired mindfuck of a book. Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife is a post-apocalyptic satirical explosion of a novel, touching on themes of overconsumption, Big Brother, technology, selfhood, and mysticism, among many others. Fans of China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, and, say, Terry Gilliam may gravitate toward Boudinot, but his out-of-control imagination is all his own.
We begin our story in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s not recognizable as such. It’s long after the end of the world, a time that’s become known as the Age of Fucked Up Shit, or FUS for short. It takes most of the book before the reader understands what precisely happened during the FUS—and even then it’s pretty convoluted—but suffice it to say it began with a sentient glacier wiping out most of North America’s major cities and involved a war between humans and “newmans,” i.e., androids. What’s left is a depopulated, trash-strewn land where the line between technology and nature has become blurred nearly beyond recognition and unseen forces seem to control most everything. New York City has been demolished, but Manhattan, at least, is being rebuilt detail by detail—on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. Meanwhile strange portents visit some of our characters, especially dreams involving The Last Dude and his mystical, well-stocked refrigerator in the middle of the desert.
The book is organized into chapters that, for the most part, alternate between the main characters. We have, for instance, Woo-jin Kan, a world champion dishwasher subject to epileptic fits of empathy who lives with his horribly obese foster sister Patsy. Patsy “pharms” for a living, growing drugs and tissues on her own body. Later we meet Abby Fogg, a digital archivist charged with unearthing a lost audio interview concerning Nick Fedderly, the child of hippies who may have invented the Rebooting Device that brought about the end of the world. Along the way she meets an aging singer named Kylee Asparagus, who lives in a grand hotel tended by hundreds of clones, all named Federico, and discovers that her boyfriend Rocco is a “DJ,” manipulating other people by hacking into their nervous systems through the Bionet—a sort of internet that is linked to the collective unconscious and can both diagnose and heal. Meanwhile, war veterans Al Skinner and Chiho Aoshima discover their new grandson is a clone of their dead son. See? Convoluted. Though wildly divergent, all of these characters and more end up crossing paths, or at least come to be part of the same intricately woven whole by the end.
Part of Boudinot’s genius is in the subtle way background is divulged. The necessary history of what happened during the FUS slowly unfolds for the reader through incidental plot points: as bits and pieces of the audio interview, as part of a scene that takes place in a history class, through watching a “memory card,” an archive of personal memories stored digitally as if they were movies. It’s an elegant, unobtrusive way of meting out information, and one that makes Blueprints a page-turner.
Truth be told, the novel is so heavily populated and complex that it’s easy to lose the thread that ties everything together. At one point Abby Fogg herself becomes frustrated with the chaos: “She yearned for plot but instead absurdity after absurdity had been thrown before her, absurdities that alluded to obscured purposes.” It’s a sentiment that some readers may empathize with, but—and here’s another aspect of Boudinot’s genius—each scene is rendered in such captivating, hallucinogenic Technicolor that “getting” the Big Idea behind the novel becomes secondary. Even incidental characters are outlandish and vivid; take, for instance, The Ambassador, a dreadlocked seer who carries a toilet-brush scepter and abandons his playboy lifestyle after being paid a visit by a giant celestial head.
If, however, one cares to look within for commentary on our own world, it’s there to be found. The mostly unpleasant future depicted within the novel—you may wish you hadn’t read the newman sex scenes—is in many ways an extension of our own society. Blueprints begins with the line, “The world was full of precious garbage,” a sentiment that could easily be applied to our own love affair with the disposable. The Bionet chips all human beings have embedded within them are offshoots of those that animal shelters now use to track dogs and cats. And as technology erodes our notions of privacy, the concept of hacking into another human being’s nervous system appears less and less far-fetched.
Blueprints is, above all, a rich book. Reading it is like devouring a sumptuous, exquisitely composed banquet in a foreign land: You may not know what half the stuff is made of, or what’s coming next, but the experience is unforgettable." - Andrea Appleton
"Things have gotten bad in the future chronicled in Blueprints of the Afterlife, the latest bit of mind-probing prose from author Ryan Boudinot, who writes like the bastard son of Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs and Aldous Huxley. A hundred years from now, a global apocalypse has wiped out 80 percent of the world’s population and ushered in the Age of Fucked Up Shit (or FUS for short). A series of catastrophes, including a human-android war and a monstrous sentient glacier with bottomless bloodlust, have mightily altered the world as we know it.
Weirdness abounds as Boudinot eschews a straightforward narrative, in favor of overlapping vignettes involving anything from alien visitation to a biology-based Internet. In the first chapter, Pacific Northwest “championship dishwasher” Woo-jin Kan debates whether to hand over food he’s pulled from the trash to his morbidly obese foster sister, who spends her time watching television and growing tissue for a bizarre government program. Ensuing chapters introduce increasingly oddball characters, including the beautifully-named data analyst Abby Fogg; her bionet hacker boyfriend, Rocco; demented former pop star Kylee Asparagus (who has 600 clones); and Luke Piper, whose posthumously retrieved audio recordings slowly begin to decode the reasons for the world’s unraveling.
Blueprints is both dire prophecy and biting commentary on the modern world, seizing on contemporary issues and blowing them up to grotesque, comedic excess in ways that never feel far-fetched (e.g., the text takes a swing at consumerism as major corporations sponsor the human-android war). Boudinot blends science fiction and farce with rare skill and energy, and his compellingly strange characters are a wonder to behold, even as they’re watching the world die." - Josh Davis
"In college, I took to aimlessly browsing small, used bookstores for recreational reading materials. Amidst a small bookshelf’s worth of diverting but forgettable reads, I discovered quite a few novels by what would become some of my favorite authors: Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, Italo Calvino’s The Watcher and Other Stories and The Devil is Dead by R. A. Lafferty. Blueprints of the Afterlife reminds me very much of the type of book I gravitated towards in those days, especially Lafferty’s work.
Ryan Boudinot’s chapters read more like a collection of intertwining, converging novellas than one science fiction novel. Woo-jin Kan is a nearly superhuman dishwasher with a childlike mind, seizures brought on by feelings of empathy and a mission dictated by his future self to write the book, How to Love People; Luke Piper is a software developer in the present trying to discover the elusive Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential’s secrets; Abby Fogg, a girl who has never felt at home in her own skin, is hired to retrieve the copy of an interview with Nick Spencer from an aging eccentric star’s dying archives; Al Skinner, addicted to recording painful memories for future viewing and then deleting them from his mind, is a veteran of corporate, Christian America’s war with robots called newmen, on a road trip to see his estranged daughter; and Neethan F. Jordan is a preternaturally shallow mega-celebrity on a first-person shooter, spiritual odyssey. Each character is moved forward in one way or another by the enigmatic Dirk Bickle, heading towards a fate tied to New York Alki, an exact recreation of Manhattan in Washington State.
Like Lafferty, Boudinot freely flirts with the border between reasonable, speculative fiction and absurdity. His future may have relatively few people in it (a result of wars, natural disasters, etc.), but is populated by giant floating heads, robot snuff porn on prime time television, DJs that hack into people’s bodies and design elaborate routines for them to live, and hostilely sentient glaciers in symbiotic relationship with ravenous polar bears. None of the weirdness functions to hinder believable characterization, and each epically screwed-up person we get to know remains sympathetic.
The strength of the narrative and its protagonists is why the novel’s one major weakness looms so largely. For over four hundred pages each character’s individual story appears fated to tie in with all of the other stories in a deeply profound way, but at most they seem to casually intersect. This flaw sucks some of the profundity and much of the sense of grand structure out of the book’s end.
Despite Blueprints of the Afterlife’s failure to clear this one last hurdle it is an impressive novel, in setting and tone a cross between Blade Runner and the writing of Alfred Bester, Terry Pratchett, and the aforementioned R. A. Lafferty. While not necessarily destined for bestseller status, I have no trouble envisioning a loyal cult following when its pages begin to yellow." - BrodartVibe's Blog
"Ryan Boudinot is a great writer. He’s funny, weird, humane, endlessly creative, and exceptionally talented. But this is not my kind of book.
Boudinot operates on the continuum between science fiction and surrealism. The world has ended, near enough. The vast majority of the world’s population was wiped out in a time of chaos and human/robot wars called “The Age of Fucked-Up Shit.” In the aftermath, America is a ravaged, fragile place full of bizarre eddies.
Swirling around in a few of those eddies are our main characters.
Woo-jin Kan is a famous, world-champion dishwasher. He lives in a tiny trailer with his foster sister, Patsy, an obese woman who grows human tissues on and in her body, for profit. Every once in a while, the doctors come and slice all the tissues off of Patsy. Until the time they come and take her whole.
Abby Fogg is a film archivist who accepts a lucrative assignment from a man representing a mysterious agency called the Kirkpatrick Academy of Human Potential. Her mission: to retrieve a vital piece of tape from a crazy lady named Kylee Asaparagus cavorting with an army of clones on a remote island. The tape contains the last surviving interview with man who might know how the world was destroyed.
Al Skinner is an Army veteran who lives in Phoenix during the winter. Then, during the now-inhospitable summer, he gets his house shrink-wrapped and he travels north to Seattle, to try to remember the war with his old buddy.
Then there are the background details of this weird post-apocalypse. Some entity has set out to recreate New York, on the comparably-sized Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle. The Internet has evolved into the “bionet,” to which citizens can hook up their immune and nervous systems and download vaccines or codes to make medicines inside their bodies. The bionet also makes people susceptible to “DJs” who can program their nervous systems remotely, essentially hacking their brains and turning them into zombies that do whatever the DJ wants.
All of this stuff is great. Boudinot writes great characters (Woo-jin is my favorite), fantastic dialogue, and hilarious weird details. The problem, for me, is that he carefully lays out the structure of a science fictional world, and then populates it with a surreal narrative and runs it on dream logic and metaphors.
[Spoiler alert: Upcoming medium-grade spoilers about what happens late in the book. I don't think they spoil the plot, because I don't think the plot can be spoiled (which is a problem, and my main complaint). Still, be warned.]
When Woo-jin struggles to keep his tiny spot in the new, ravaged world, I’m into it. I’m into it when he gets swept up in this weird plan to figure out how the world was destroyed. But then Woo-jin’s “future brain” sends him a message to write a book for “The Last Dude” because it’s all he’ll have to read during something-or-other, and I’m not into what happens next: Woo-jin goes to New York Alki, and shops around his unreadable manuscript, which is in a couple of pizza boxes (when he mixes up the boxes, the story gets confusing but better, in his opinion).
“Shopping around his manuscript” means that Woo-jin puts the pizza boxes in a shopping cart and pushes them around to the offices of literary agents. But, in nascent New York Alki, population density is low, and none of those offices are staffed.
This is the kind of thing I just can’t get behind: an essentially meaningless, intentionally surreal image, begging for you to assign it a meaning. A man wandering the streets of a fake, half-reconstructed New York, taking the book that could save the world around to a bunch of empty agents’ offices.
I prefer my characters to be actually experiencing the central drama of a novel, instead of staggering through a surreal, symbolic world like they’re lost in a Dali painting.
Boudinot seems to know that endless surreal meandering is unsatisfying on its own, as another major thread of the novel involves the transcribed text of that interview that Abby was sent to get. In it, a man named Luke Piper talks about his friendship with Nick Fedderly, who seems to be responsible for the Age of Fucked-Up Shit. These interviews are, like the rest of the novel, well-written and compelling, but ultimately disappointing when they devolve into surrealism. (The thing that brings about the end of the world is a big red unmarked button whose purpose and function is unknown—or it might just be a symbol. In this novel, it’s impossible to tell the difference.)
But at least the interviews have a goal. Luke Piper is going somewhere. Specifically, he’s laying out how the world was destroyed. That’s more than you can really say for any of the other characters. These great characters often seem just on the verge of joining forces and… doing... something. But they don’t have anything to do, and so their stories end in deflated epiphanies that reveal their hollowness.
Like this: it turns out that Abby, after most of the novel on an island, seeing all all-clone self-incestuous orgies and other weirdnesses, was under a bionet spell the whole time. None of that mattered, Kirkpatrick just needed someone to babysit the weird island and Abby’s DJ volunteered her. That tape she was assigned to get? It disappears, and has no effect on her or anyone else’s life.
So then Abby’s sitting there, with Al Skinner (who’s been busy annihilating an army of possibly dangerous androids, but he’s been doing it all, maddeningly, off-stage). He says the guy she thought she was dating was DJing her, and that’s he the slavemaster of hundreds of bionet zombies, and that she should do something about it.
Her response: shrug.
That pretty much sums up my reaction to this book: everything you thought you’d been reading is meaningless. Shrug.
Later on, Abby does take action, finally, but little comes of it. And, similarly, Boudinot crafts a rational ending to tie it all together. Or rather, he throws out the shards of a few rational plotlines so that you, if you desire, can ostensibly go back and patch together what happened. But it’s too little too late. The surrealism at the core here, the book’s metaphorical engine, has eroded the reality of the story to the point where anything could have happened.
There are a lot of these books these days, running the gamut from metaphorical novels like Illumination and The Flame Alphabet, to meaningless weirdness like China Mieville’s Embassytown. People seem to like it. If you are one of those people, definitely read this book, because Boudinot is every bit as good as all of those writers. But if you like drama, as I do, instead of characters meandering around surreal dreamscapes, then avoid this." - Nico Vreeland
"The main character of Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot's second novel is not a person. It's a point in time, in a misty future, although not so far ahead that we have lost the memory of Will Ferrell.
This point in time follows an apocalypse. Humans have scorched the planet and killed billions of their number. The people in "Blueprints of the Afterlife" are exhausted, stunned survivors stumbling around in a world still strangely recognizable and possibly steered by a guy named Kirkpatrick.
Their term for this catastrophe, however, can only be alluded to in a family newspaper but one character says of it, "Everyone was on the wrong side. The very idea of sides was on the wrong side."
"Blueprints of the Afterlife," set largely in the Pacific Northwest, is a meditation on humans after such a struggle. But it's not a bummer. In many places, the novel hilariously dumps pop culture into a blender with futurism and presses purée, as in a war scene:
"One of the other guys in the unit looked exactly like the ... comedic actor Will Ferrell. Another bug in the program. Apparently, if you remembered a person as looking sort of like someone famous, the famous person tended to show up in your memory instead. 'Guys?' Will Ferrell said, his voice cracking. 'Maybe we should just find a Starbucks and get lattes? My treat? What do you say?'"
In this afterlife, the Internet has evolved to give you medical care immediately thanks to that chip implanted in the body. Human "pharmers" are paid to grow body parts for transplant.
The eponymous blueprints are for resculpting Bainbridge Island into a replica of New York City -- which seems like a colossally stupid thing for humans to do to restore life following an apocalypse, but none of Boudinot's characters is more than mildly puzzled by the construction.
Boudinot's population in general is outsized and weird. A famous singer lives on an island with 200 clones of a former lover. A war veteran served not for his country but in Boeing's private army.
The most empathetic character is a world-champion restaurant dishwasher at Il Italian Joint. He is assigned to write a book titled "How to Love People." He has no idea how or where to start.
This point of time that is Boudinot's main character is a dark and strange creature. But at least there's Will Ferrell. At least his memory will survive the apocalypse." - Anne Saker
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Ryan Boudinot, Misconception: A Novel, Grove Press, 2009.
"Cedar Rivers is on a strange errand. A doctor sidelined into the strange world of the first dot-com boom, he has come to Albany, New York, in between business in Iceland and home in Silicon Valley, to meet a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Then a Chuck Taylor–shod proto-Goth with chipped black nail polish, Kat is now a literary up-and-comer who needs Cedar to vet her memoir—an account of the summer they were sweethearts. As if that weren’t enough, she’s written parts of it from his point of view. Through an intense weekend in a snowed-in motel room, Cedar and Kat relive their most painful memories: Before they had a chance at first love, Kat’s mother and her new fiancé dragged Kat off on a family trip. Kat returned with a secret, one which—when she shared it with Cedar—set off a series of drastically miscalculated assumptions that dominoed into a moment of startling tragedy. Misconception is a startlingly original debut novel—a smart and provocative coming-of-age story, and a fresh and witty comment on the unreliability of memory and storytelling—that establishes Ryan Boudinot as one of the most promising talents of his generation."
"A breezy, humorous first novel from Boudinot (after his collection, The Littlest Hitler) chronicles the awkward coming-of-age of a boy whose middle-school crush entwines him into the girl's dysfunctional family. Cedar Rivers is first introduced when he brings in his own semen for inspection under the microscope in eighth-grade science class, a stunt that impresses incipient beauty Kat Daniels. Groping summer sexual experiments ensue and are cut short as Kat has to spend a month traveling with her mom and her mom's creepy new boyfriend, George. When Kat returns pregnant, George is the assumed suspect. Boudinot is not overly concerned by this flimsy plot, managing to inject textual interest by alternating the narrative in the voices of first Cedar then Kat, whom Cedar meets with 20 years later to sign a waiver regarding the memoir she's about to publish. There are ironic, tongue-in-cheek moments (Ryan Boudinot is the name of a critic who reviewed Kat's first book), perhaps to remind the reader not to take any of this too seriously—especially the over-the-top ending—while Boudinot provides moments of gossamer prose." - Publishers Weekly
"Boffo comedy and compassionate attention to everyday familial and sexual boondoggles are almost perfectly blended in this zesty first novel from button-pushing Boudinot.
It begins with adolescent Cedar Rivers getting suspended for bringing in a container of his semen for a school science project. His father, an overstressed lawyer, is suitably POed, but Cedar’s mom, a medical photographer who’s seen us all at our inner worst, takes it in stride. His classmates are mostly grossed out, except for incipient hot chick Kat, who’s so taken with the pure product of Cedar’s gonads that she stores it “in a secret compartment beneath her bracelets and necklaces,” and designates him her de facto boyfriend. Some 20 years and many romantic crises later, he is an unmarried medical-company rep, and she a published writer of fiction whose just-completed memoir implicates Cedar in her personal history so vividly that Kat requires his permission to publish it. Cross-cutting deftly between their shared and separate adolescences and early adulthoods, the author assembles an irresistible R-rated comedy that features such attention-getting supporting players as the phlegmatically goofy host family that shelters Cedar when his parents combust, Kat’s seductively trampy mother Veronica, the latter’s loose-cannon ex Jerry and his designated replacement George, a weird combination of prude and provocateur. Boudinot displays crack comic timing, gets off some wonderfully indecent one-liners and constructs one credibly replete face-off scene after another; even a throwaway conversation between the chastened Cedar and a worldly-wise psychiatric counselor bristles with ironic wit. The central plot issue, hinted at by the perfect title, is handled with consummate energy and tact. Alas, all these wonders are seriously compromised by an unconvincingly melodramatic climax. Too bad, because for most of the way this kick-ass yarn threatens to become the most inviting comedy of wasted youth since Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones (1997).
Falters slightly just when it ought to soar, but keep your eye on Boudinot: He’s on his way up." - Kirkus Review
"Memory, truth, and perspective are shifting and variable in Ryan Boudinot’s Misconception. This intention soon becomes distracted with melodrama. Boudinot seems to purposely confuse and disorient the reader, beginning with the subtitle “a memoir novel.” The story pivots from 1980s Pacific Northwest to Albany present day, following the lives of Cedar Rivers and Kat Daniels. Cedar and Kat are former junior high boyfriend and girlfriend, now meeting as adults for the first time in twenty years. Kat is a writer (with a “Master’s in Fucking and Alcoholism”) and Cedar is a medical imaging dotcommer. Their early insecurity and victimization are now tempered by the offhandedness of pre-middle life privilege and autonomy.
During their weekend together in an Albany hotel, Cedar reads Kat’s memoir one chapter at a time; she is seeking his signature for a legal release, his ratification of her version of events. As Cedar reads, he understands Kat’s account of the past, a shared but contentious reality. The reader soon discovers that the beginning of the book was Kat’s rendition of Cedar’s perspective. There is a thrill in realizing this, but the novel does not deliver on this early experimental promise.
Misconception is anchored by sex and family crisis more than by the unreliable memory that is supposed to be its heart. The plot construct is interesting, but failed. The intertitles are unearned, overly friendly, and precious - “Oh, about twenty-two years prior, on the other side of the country, this time with Kat narrating.”
This is Boudinot’s debut novel; he has previously published a short story collection called The Littlest Hitler, and this novel’s plotting and tricksiness belong in a collection of short fiction. This is a novel that wants to be a short story or a screenplay. It is clever, with more attention to technique than to characters. Kat and Cedar’s almost Lynchian childhoods mature into I-don’t-care adulthoods; these disaffected adults do not resemble their traumatized eighth grader selves. Here formative tragedy - oh, well.
The disjointed structure of this novel, told in pieces with missing connectors, prevents the reader from actually experiencing the consequences and effects of action. The details -- abuse, suicide, bad parents, rape -- are crass and seem to exist to shock the reader and provide a template for characters assembled from unfortunate circumstance. And why are young people’s sexual lives so fraught in literature? Sex is either absent or abusive and unpleasant in novels about teens. There are lots of fluids and sex talk here but not much actual doing it.
Boudinot is excessively meta and self-referential, from including an Amazon review of Kat’s short stories by Ryan Boudinot to creating a character who has published a short story collection and is now working on a memoir novel. Boudinot twice compares creation and understanding of memoir to divorce and cadaver dissection:
Cedar’s dad talking about the divorce:
You’re going to hear contradictions coming from both sides. It’s up to you to choose what to believe.”
Cedar talking to Kat:
“You get to see parts of bodies that the bodies themselves never saw.”
“Like a memoir. You get to see parts of lives that those living them never saw.”
The intended audience for the book is surely not YA, but I kept recalling teen novels like Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts, Barry Lyga’s The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Perhaps because of the slightness, the edge, and the self-conscious suffering, parts of the novel seem to be written for teens. The characters range from pathetic to odious. Cedar is passive and possibly closeted (there are hints throughout). Kat is cruel and dismal. As a survivor of child abuse and a chaotic family, Kat’s life is legitimately bitter and miserable but she is consistently selfish, insensitive to Cedar’s problems, a repugnant stereotype in black nail polish and hightop Chucks. The pile-on of misfortune does not make us sad, just disbelieving.
When Cedar discovers that his reckless teenage motivation was based on lies, he is unaffected. There is no explanation for this and the book ends quizzically at a Denny’s breakfast. The reader is robbed of two endings -- the ending of Misconception proper and the ending of Kat’s memoir. Unfortunately, the plot builds to a disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion. One gets the sense that this was intended but that does not make it less satisfying." - Kati Nolfi
"Former lovers Kat and Cedar—now in their thirties and strangers—remember things differently. Not the biggest deal in the world; 20 years passing after high school will distort a shared memory into two competing story lines. But it matters a bit more when a publisher picks up Kat’s memoir, and she has written more than half of it from Cedar’s perspective. The two meet up in Albany so Cedar can read over the manuscript and verify that he won’t sue her once it’s out.
Boudinot’s (The Littlest Hitler) debut novel exists on two planes. Before we even know it, we’re reading Kat’s memoir—a look back at a 1980s summer in Washington state, in which the two dabbled in love, fumbled through sex and stumbled into adult problems. Cedar’s parents divorce, Kat’s divorced mom remarries, Kat’s alcoholic father reenters the picture, and Cedar manages to conflate all three to bring the summer and story to a dramatic, tragic crescendo. Interspersed are the older Kat and Cedar, meeting up for the first time in years in an Albany hotel, flirting with their former selves and reigniting their 20-year-old tension.
What starts out as a fairly standard story of teenagers taking themselves too seriously ends up being a funny and finely hewn examination of some serious concerns. There are the writerly ones, sure—the question of who owns the story, what can be trusted in any individual’s account. But Boudinot’s after something more universal: like how good intentions can lead to terrible endings." - Jonathan Messinger
Read it at Google Books
Ryan Boudinot, The Littlest Hitler: Stories, Counterpoint, 2007.
"Bette Wore What I Had Come To Secretly Call Her Star Trek uniform, a hideous white suit jacket with too-pointy collars. From her face hung a beard of bees. Everyone's seen these things on TV or in National Geographic. Some farmer standing shirtless in his field, a stalactite of writhing insects dangling from his grinning face. But on Bette, though. Our account manager for digital media. I wasn't even aware she raised bees. Welcome to the world of Ryan Boudinot, where a little boy who innocently dresses up as Hitler for Halloween suffers the consequences. ("The Littlest Hitler"); a world where a typical office romance is destroyed by the female half's habit of coming to work covered in live bees ("Bee Beard"); where jacked-up salesmen go on murderous, Burgess-like rampages ("The Sales Team"); and the children of the future are required to kill off their parents--preferably with an ice pick--in order to be accepted to the college of their choice ("Civilization"). You may never want to leave. In each of these fearless, hilarious, and tightly crafted stories, Boudinot's voice rings with a clarity rarely seen in a debut collection. He speaks to a generation that has tried to seem disaffected but can't help wishing for a better world. His characters shake their heads over the same messes they're busily creating, or lash out angrily at a sex-and-violence-saturated culture. But they can never entirely lose their sense of fun, however perverse it may be."
"Work like this used to be called "experimental fiction," but the experiments worked out so well that short stories similar to those in The Littlest Hitler are thick on the ground. That said, almost none of them can compare to Boudinot's effortless style. As for content, what is in this man's brain? He is knee-slappin' funny but never corny, witty, ironic, smart as punch, really angry about the world in which we find ourselves, and can write about violence, tenderness, confusion, purpose, and utter mayhem with equal aplomb. Critics are at great pains to compare him to other short story writers, but don't worry about who he is "like." He exhausts the species; he is sui generis.
The title story is about Davy, a middle-schooler whose father lets him go to a Halloween party dressed as Hitler. His classmate Lysette shows up as Anne Frank. Ouch. For most writers, that would be enough; not for Boudinot. The ending will bring you to your knees. Speaking of endings, the snapper at the end of "On Sex and Relationships" comes out of nowhere and is the perfect explanation of all that has gone before. "Newholly" is a chilling tale of a white bread couple living next door to a Somalian woman who beats her children. If they tell, will she be deported? If they don't, will the children be damaged in unforeseeable ways? "Absolut Boudinot" is only a page and a half but packs the wallop of a novel. A major terrorist group strikes on Halloween, dressed as clowns. "We weren't the kinds of terrorists interested in killing lots of people. We sought to destroy property..." The first bomb takes out the Federal Courthouse, a caravan of limos taking teenagers to a formal dance, a convent full of nuns, the Humane Society and a Homeless Shelter. "Oh well, that's one of the costs of doing our part to avenge Big Government and Homosexual Rights." The story ends: "As the sound of emergency vehicles filled our ears, we raised our glasses to toast the destruction of decadent Western civilization and a job well done." - Amazon.com Review
"There's no question where Boudinot's sympathies lie, but he is not a preacher. He shows us with tight writing and instantly recognizable characters what he wants us to know. This is one of the best short story collections to come down the pike in a long time. Watch out for Boudinot." - Valerie Ryan
"Boudinot proves himself a twisted, formidable storyteller in his dark and surefooted debut. In the title story, fourth-grader Davy, with his father's assistance, dresses up as Hitler for Halloween ("I had gotten the idea after watching World War II week on PBS"), but realizes his terrible judgment after an encounter with a classmate dressed as Anne Frank. "On Sex and Relationships" brims with irony as two yuppie couples get together for dinner; the evening is banal enough—board games, nostalgic chitchat—but festering rivalries, buried secrets and bitterness color the evening and threaten to sink the narrator's relationship with his girlfriend. In "Civilization," teens of the future receive "duty papers" when it's time to kill their parents, so as to be accepted into college. Despite his parents' encouragement to kill them ("Don't let your nerves get to you!" reads a Post-it his father sticks to the refrigerator), narrator Craig has his reservations. Reminiscent of early Rick Moody or the short stories of Daniel Handler, each of Boudinot's 13 stories is a microcosm of weirdness imbued with imagination and maniacal wit." - Publishers Weekly
"Reading Ryan Boudinot’s short story collection, The Littlest Hitler, is a little like stuffing your mouth with Pop Rocks and waiting for the explosion. It’s a little like dismantling a bomb. It’s like inhabiting a world where your brain is in your foot, your heart in your elbow, and yet you remain confidant that you are anatomically correct while the world around you is horribly deformed. For everything that it is, what it is not, is a normal reading experience.
Take the title story, in which a young boy, on Halloween night, quite innocently dresses as Hitler -- moustache and all -- and must face the consequences of his actions. Or consider “Bee Beard,” a love story in which a female co-worker wears a beard of bees to work, and the complications which ensue for her love interest, a man allergic. In “Civilization,” Boudinot shows us a world in which the patriotic duty of an eighteen-year-old is to murder his parents, and the odd supportiveness of his family for his endeavor.
Boudinot’s humor is quick, dark, and biting. Lines such as, “I knew that a man with guts enough to call a crayon racist was a man who could dissuade my mother from cannibalism” is not the exception, but the rule. Lines like “Sorry Mitch. It’s not my job to clean dead guy residue off your back seat,” functions as an effective use of narration and is not reduced to simple shock value. His stories are more than theatrical one-liners and zings. Rather, they’re off-kilter yet thoughtful, odd but endearing. They are incredibly entertaining, but the question remains: do they transcend mere entertainment? Do the stories resonate when the pages end?
It is hard to say for sure. Stories like “On Sex and Relationships” and “The Flautist” are reassurances that this is the case; that Boudinot has created something more than a fanciful reading experience. Yet others, like “Blood Relatives” and “The Sales Team,” cause the reader to question if the stories are more than a forceful jarring to awaken the reader.
What we know for certain is that Boudinot’s tales are packed with boys and men who know nothing of the boundaries or decorum which the world demands. Sometimes they dress as Hitler and have no qualms about standing next to the girl dressed as Anne Frank. Sometimes they murder their parents and later declare, “I’m a little embarrassed about how big a deal I made of it at the time.” And sometimes drug store owners, in an effort at customer service, pop patron’s pimples and make it their business to call customers at home to remind them it’s time to buy a new toothbrush. Yet it is this blind disregard for rules which transports these slightly absurdist stories into the realm of believability.
Rarely do I use the phrase, “best short story collection I’ve read in awhile,” though I think the bravery and confidence with which Boudinot writes makes The Littlest Hitler a contender. No subject too taboo, no line too grotesque, Boudinot, thankfully, doesn’t know what it means to hold a punch. He leads us through dangerous terrain, but like good soldiers, we follow blindly. We are never led astray." - Benjamin Jacob Hollars
"Having had my expectations raised by Pack’s recommendation, and then lowered by the cover, I found they settled pretty much in the middle and remained there undisturbed. Pack compares The Littlest Hitler (favourably) with the work of George Saunders: an apt comparison to be sure, but for me it fell somewhat short of Saunders’ brilliance.
The differences are in language and in subtlety. With George Saunders, the language is an essential part - almost a character in itself – of each story, perfectly fused with the ideas. Ryan Boudinot seems much more interested in the ideas rather than how they are expressed, and the writing, while always competent, didn’t make me shiver and squirm in pleasure as Saunders’ stuff does.
Also, Boudinot tends to go for the broad approach to his settings, eschewing the middle ground of Saundersesque plausible-but-silly corporate hell (see Pastoralia) for more outlandish proposals, such as working with a dead guy (Contaminant) or a US where teenagers ‘serve their country’ by killing their parents, for which they are rewarded with a place in their desired college (Civilization). Here, any satirical intent is blocked and blunted by the sheer arbitrariness of the ideas. There is not enough to connect to.
However, when he’s good, Boudinot is clever, funny and thought-provoking; and this invariably occurs in the more human and realistic (relatively speaking) stories. In Drugs and Toys, a lonely shopkeeper gives his life purpose by providing, well, really excellent customer service, and there are moments of real pathos amid the humour and absurdity. In the title story, a boy who dresses up as Hitler for a school Hallowe’en parade experiences the sharp end of prejudice. In On Sex and Relationships, the perversity of human behaviour is wittily exposed, when a couple hosting a dinner party have a conflict with their family-planning schedule:
The thermometer beeped and Julianne looked at the read-out. “Darling?” she said. “It appears I’m ovulating.”
“It’s not the spicy curry?” Bob said.
“I’m pretty sure not,” Julianne said.
I couldn’t tell whether this suposed to be was a hint that Katherine and I should leave. We picked at the edges of coasters swiped from a brew pub. Bob said, “Well I guess we should go upstairs and make a baby then.” We all laughed. Our friends rose from the couch.
“So yeah, we’ll just take off,” Katherine said.
“Oh no, no, we want you to stay,” Julianne said. “I’ve been dying for a chance to play the new edition of Cranium. You guys stay put. This shouldn’t take long at all.”
“Not that, well, usually -” Bob said.
“There’s Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer,” Julianne said as they hurried up the stairs. “Totally help yourselves.”
Even in the weaker stories, Boudinot has a knack or gift for injecting a little pathos into the ending, turning the wackiness down and the beauty up, and producing a more satisfying experience in the end than you were expecting. Who’d have thought a piece of silliness like Civilization would end with a muted line like “My life’s true pleasures I have found in the remains of this lost, proud culture, in the solitude of their beautiful tombs”?
There are so many current references (Xboxes, Napster, CD-Rs), however, that if the book is still being read into twenty years’ time – and Boudinot is certainly a writer to watch - future editions will need to have flurries of footnotes settled at the bottom of each page, like dandruff." - John Self