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After James by Michael Helm

After James

by Michael Helm

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After James by Michael Helm is a so-so novel told in three loosely connected storylines. Disturbing and atmospheric, After James features stylistic, existential and dense prose resulting in a feeling of unease. The three parts of the novel represent three types of genre fiction: the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic.

The first part follows Ali, a neuroscientist who abruptly leaves her job and isolates herself in rural Canada. She plans to blow the whistle on the drug she helped create, Alph, which enhances creativity but also induces suicide in test subjects. The second part follows James, a literary detective hired by Ali's father as he tries to find Ali by decoding the work of an internet poet who writes with precise details about the disappearance and murder of people. The third part features Ali's sister Cecilia, a survivor of a miscarriage, who has her identity stolen by a conceptual artist.

After James is an ambitious novel that has brilliant parts but doesn't quite live up to its lofty goals. Part of the reason for this is the prose itself, which tends to be incredibly detailed. When this prose turns toward the characters, who are excessively reflective about everything, it is easy to lose track of any direction the stories are taking. They become pages of characters wallowing in their own thoughts while leaving the reader struggling to keep reading. I never felt any connection to them or had even begun to care about what they were thinking.

And, if I'm totally honest, Helm had to do a lot of making up to me as a reader concerning Ali and her dog. Ali, for an intelligent woman, needed more assertiveness and should have pulled out her cell phone and made a few calls. I don't think I ever quite forgave Helm for what happened to Ali's dog and her hazy nonchalant attitude toward him being missing. It's never good if I'm mentally talking back to an author about characters and choices. It didn't bode well for the next two parts. In the end even the passages that were incredible couldn't overcome all the passages that left me struggling to keep reading (and I am a reader who tries very hard to understand the author's intent and very, very rarely does not finish what I start.)

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1752247460 ( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Sep 8, 2016 |
Three novellas, each of which is related to the others through threads of dreams or foreshadowing. The plots all explore the nature of reality, viewed through lenses of madness, near death, hallucinogens, flickers of recognition from strangers, or writing which seems to capture one's own history. The threads weave back and forth within and sometimes between the stories, and even the title of the book and the order of the stories seem designed to help construct the web.

The first story concerns a scientist who has designed a creativity drug which led to the death of a trial participant named James. She has quit the company and moved away to rent a home from a couple she's never met. The wife has left her notes about a neighbor who may have killed his wife. That is, if she hasn't hallucinated the whole thing in her mental illness. On the brink of historic flooding, the scientist tries the drug herself and while under its influence is rescued by this same neighbor. How can she decide if he is someone to fear?

In the second novella, which was most satisfying of the three, a poet named James becomes involved with a poetry web site which every viewer thinks is about him or her. Are the poems in code? Can they be manipulated to form direct links to the mysteries of people's lives? Who is the poet? And is the hallucinogen One Two, which James ingests, the creativity drug or is this a parallel reality to the first story?

The third story tells of a virologist (who has just lost a child she thinks of as "James") and her paleontologist-turned-mystic father. They have a relationship with a German artist who makes moving art based on the virologist's life but also reflects events from the first story. In the course of a visit together, the father and daughter explore a cave in which they almost die, and there are questions about whether the events which follow actually occur or are the dreams of the dead.

Brilliant plotting, frustrating at times, and requiring close attention. I'm sure I've missed many clues and connections, and the book probably needs to be read more than once or twice to fully appreciate the complexity of the design. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Aug 25, 2016 |
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