It had been said that you can judge a man by the quality of his enemies, though I hope to god this is not the case. The specifics of that long ago night in Brighton in which Rjurik Davidson and I decided that we not only were but, in some ineffable sense, always had been bitter arch-rivals need not be entered into, though it involved hard alcohol, straight-razors, and soft-boiled eggs. Having cruelly reviewed (though not actually read) Davidson's Unwrapped Sky over on his own blog, it seemed only fair to offer him a similar forum for a shrapnel-sharp, if utterly ill-informed, critique of my own work. It is as follows.
The thing is, I wanted to read Daniel Polansky’s novel, Those Above. I wanted to, in the same way that I wanted to eat the spicy chicken and rice from the roadside stall in Thailand. That memorable time in Bankok, the drifting aroma attracted me like a rat to refuse. I scurried forward, bought my little plastic tub of the stuff, and ate it in the gutter. The flavours! The aroma! The thrill of risk-taking! How little I understood, in those glory days when the world was young. No sooner had I finished than the stabbing pains began, deep in my stomach. There was a rusty jagged dagger, somewhere in my intestines. I broke into a sweat. Tsunamis of nausea washed over me. The world lost all center. Things fell apart. For close to a week I stumbled through life, sweating, weeping, despairing, declaring I would never face a Thai hospital. Never! You can see, then, that though I wanted to read Polansky’s new book, I stayed well away from its seductive and vicious attractions.
To begin with, take the title: Those Above. Obviously this isn’t a book about Gods now is it? I mean, that would be too predictable. No, it’s more likely to be about an alien species, who have come to enslave the human race, or perhaps enslaved it in the past and now we – or the lame, hobbled things passing for characters within – must rebel against them. Oh Lord, could there be anything more trite than some kind of neo-Marxist parable of class struggle? I mean, next thing I’ll discover that Those Above is some crude fantasy recasting of a late 19th Century revolution, influenced by the realists and existentialists, filled with ponderous philosophizing, its plot creaking like some lumbering pirate galley against the waters of his leaden political positions. Forgive me if I’m jumping to conclusions, having not, of course, read the book, but doesn’t it make you want to punch Polansky in the head?
You see, there was a time when I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. Across the room I spied what might have been mistaken for a tall, debonair New Yorker. Our eyes locked. In that baleful stare coming from across the room I immediately recognized my nemesis. He was the black to my white, up to my down, the evil to my good, the dunce to my genius. Oh Christ, I thought, who is this dastardly, bile-spitting, hate-filled fiend come straight from one of Lovecraft’s more adjective-filled tales? Oh yes, he can be charming and witty. Oh yes, he can write. But underneath, I understood, this was the type of man who read Evelyn Waugh. It was, of course Polanski – yes, Polanki with an ‘i’, because he likes to deny his relationship with his slightly less odious relative, Roman.
Why then should we be surprised that he should write a book like Those Above? A book filled with such a malevolent ideology that you should want to pluck out your eyes from the very first page, thus freeing you from the horrid labour of having to read it. But knowing Polansky, he would only send you an audio-book version of it, the better to send you towards the knitting needles, your eardrums quivering with fear. Yes, I’m sure the world building is fantastic, if you like that kind of thing. I’m sure the plot builds to ever more intense crescendos. I’m sure it’s moving and humorous and one of the best books of the year. But that doesn’t contradict the fact that it is a horrendous novel of dastardly proportions. That doesn’t redeem Polansky. What could?
Oh, how I’ve wanted to read Those Above, but I remember that stall in Thailand. I remember that delicious and villainous scent. I remember the days of agony following. Can you hear its call, like a Siren calling you onto her rocks?