The Troika by Stepan Chapman
(The Ministry of Whimsy Press, $14.99, 250 pages, paperback, November 1997.)
That quote, used at the start of Chapter 17 of Stepan Chapman's Philip K Dick Award winning novel says a lot, really...
Three travellers are crossing a desert under the intense glare of three suns. They don't know why they're crossing the desert and they don't know what they'll find on the other side. They've been crossing the desert for a long time, too: for centuries. They can't even escape by killing each other, although they try often enough.
Alex is a man who has always wanted to be a machine; when we first encounter him in the desert he is the guiding intelligence of a jeep (but things change in Chapman's strange fictional world, things never stay the same). Eva is an old Mexican woman, although she has been a fish-priestess and later a whore. Their daughter, Naomi, is a brontosaur who was once a military corpsicle.
If this is starting to sound weird, then that's because it is. And it gets weirder...
The story of their journey across the desert is interspersed with dream-sequence flashbacks, returning us to various transformed versions of the 20th Century. Some of these vignettes are rather dense in imagery and language, others are striking and powerful: there's a wonderful horror scene where a young man who'd been frightening his girlfriend by recounting incidents from a splatter movie is confronted by a far more immediate, personal horror; there's a brilliant sequence where Alex recalls the extreme methods he employed when he worked as a pest control robot.
The dreams and flashbacks are often meandering and full of contradictions and delusions. Their effect is subtle and the picture they build up is slow to form, yet nonetheless relentless.
In The Troika, we have three unreliable narrators in an unreliable world, each taking turns to tell us their unreliable histories.
And Chapman's great achievement with this novel is that not only does he deliver a strange and surreal melange of imagery, not only does he work at language and form, teasing and pulling about his sentences and scenes with playful artistry ... not only does he do all that: he does it without ever really losing touch with the kind of narrative momentum more familiar to thriller readers. Yes, some of the dream sequences threaten to tie you up in knots of illogic and, yes, sometimes the language is too tricksy and florid, but regardless, you just have to keep going, have to keep building up Chapman's mosaic in your head, have to get to the end.
It's the kind of book you read, and somewhere in the back of your mind a little voice says: He's not going to pull it off. He's not going to pull it off. He's not going to pull it off.
In novels like this ("novels like this" - what am I saying? There are no novels like this!)...
But anyway... in novels like this, there comes an inevitable point where some kind of underpinning logic has to emerge from the weirdness: too little explication and the reader is liable to feel let down, betrayed; too much and all that has gone before is liable to look just a little silly. Chapman gets it right, he delivers. Somehow he's managed to write a novel of the weird with the narrative drive of something far more conventional. Little wonder that it has been praised by John Shirley, Brian Stableford, Paul McAuley and others. Little wonder that it rapidly seems to be acquiring cult status.
If you spot it in a bookshop, buy it -- you won't find another novel like it in a long time. You'll recognise it by the stunning cover art by Alan M Clark. Or you could always order it from one of the addresses below, just to be sure.
The Troika is published by The Ministry of Whimsy Press, Post Office Box 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315, USA.
Review by Keith Brooke.
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© Keith Brooke 11 April 1998