Smoke & Mirrors

SmokeBy Chuck Richardson 236 pp. BlazeVOX $16.00

Truisms are called truisms for a reason. They’re not exactly the same as truthiness, as promulgated by right-wing demagogues. Truisms, by their nature, are hackneyed. But they contain more than just the traditional “element of truth.” They do not sin by omission. Rather they bespeak the obvious and are often useful by bringing our attention back to what is obvious.

I have a truism in mind: where there is smoke there is fire. This expression exercises and belies David Hume’s deconstruction of causation. As Hume noted, how do we know that particular effects follow from certain causes? How do we infer specific causes from quantifiable effects? Hume’s radically pedestrian assertion was instead of nature, God, or the Devil, we hold to causation from force of habit. We associate causes and effects within our minds through repetition and imaginative thinking that is predicated on experience. We believe the sun will rise the next day not merely from an abstract understanding of earthly rotation (which we never really feel) but from having seen it occur day after day. How do we know the wine glass I’m about to drop will fall to the ground and not float upwards, will shatter and not merely bounce? Of course either of these less likely outcomes is possible. But no, it will fall and it will shatter. This I know from my experience of other falling objects and the witnessing of bursting light bulbs and beer bottles on kitchen floors and street corners. True, there is an extension of imagination within this assumption, but it is imagination grounded in experience, expectation, some trauma (I’m always shocked by shattering glass), and the brute force of a lifetime of habit-formed association between actions and reactions.

So where there’s smoke, surely there’s fire? The beauty of literature done well is when truisms fail miserably. And in Chuck Richardson’s Smoke there is smoke, but it’s not clear there is any fire. Mind you, this is not intended as some sort of backhanded figuratively-cast literary criticism. (All smoke no fire signifying some failing of literary imagination.) Quite literally, there is no fire in Smoke because smoke is what it’s all about.

Smoke is a classic example of what troubles genre of literary fiction as a business proposition—troubled, that is, not by any lack of quality but lack of market. Personally, I thought Smoke a great read and thus deserving of a hell-of-a-larger audience. First it appealed directly to my penchant for science fiction and background as an erstwhile scholar of dystopian fiction. (If Margaret Atwood can get away with it, why can't Chuck Richardson?) Second, it is, like any work of dystopian fiction done right, told through the fish-eye lens of multiple characters, not all of whom fully understand what is happening or why, who struggle to assay the truth of their situation but only see parts of it, as if wading through smoke themselves. After all, isn't what makes fiction fiction its smokiness, its insubstantiality, the penumbra it offers only of reality, of life seen through a glass darkly?

I’ll be blunt and a little lazy and not even dig into the details of the story’s plot line—which is fuzzy anyway. Enough to say that the setting is a future America where there is an “Agency” that takes in individuals for questionings that amount to all-orifice, sodium pentathol-like, half-pain, half-ecstasy torture sessions. It is also an America where your loyalty is to the never properly defined “Tribe” and where the aforementioned entire Agency is after the mysterious and much too earnest Zbigniew “Ziggy” Fumar and his rebel supporters—who may not even know that they are supporters.

Although Ziggy is not necessarily the protagonist—whatever that may mean in this particular work—he is the voice of the author, authority, and perhaps the ultimate lack of it, which all authors experience once their work graduates into the hands of readers. As Ziggy offers in the letter? manifesto? confession? that the Agency's agents, the novel’s “authorities,” study for clues as to what Ziggy's movement is about:

So let me start by saying that I don’t get you. It’s easy when a writer writes something and he knows his reader; because it makes it easy to leave out things the two of you already know. But I don’t know what you know, and don’t know what I know, and nobody knows what they don’t know. And that’s the truth. Honest. The truth always wraps itself in a dynamic paradox. In this case, it’s the writer’s paradox: All writers are liars; I am a writer. Or, all writing is lying; I am writing. Or, all reading is sucking; I am reading, and so on, etc….You’re not against fiction; you’re against my fiction. You oppose my make-believe. And you believe your make-believe is real. I’m sure it is, but so is mine. You dream up your stuff and I’ll dream up mine. This is fiction, and that you are reading anything and believe it’s not fiction, well that’s a fiction, albeit a non-literate one. It’s me who should be torturing you…

We are Smoke’s readers and Mr. Richardson, like any author, cannot know what we do or don’t know in fine detail. As such the novel has and takes the liberties of literary expressionism, steeped in equal parts George Orwell and Robert Coover, compelling its readers to find their way through the haze: What is this world? What is the Agency really after? What is the Tribe? Why do some characters seem little more than the ghosts of Pirandello’s players in search of an author? Why do they change form or divine the future or see their stories merge, split and merge again in some macabre waltz of unsettled identities, an unsettled future, and an unsettled literature.

If this review itself seems hazy, don’t let that obscure the fact that Smoke is actually a pleasure to read. OK, so every question is not answered; so truisms and false-isms are liberally mixed producing a powerful concoction of literary speculation on our modern politics, authorial deceit, and epistemological yearning, but I’d be more than happy to order another round. Smoke is more than “speculative” fiction in the traditional senses as applied to highbrow literature and science fiction respectively. It’s a fine read that compels even as it disturbs, compels because it disturbs, which, in a sense, is how life is, if not ought be, ultimately lived.