Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Bone Saw": Fun, Upbeat Bloodbath

One doesn't often expect a story of a sadistic serial killer to be a so-called laugh riot — perhaps a black comedy, one might suppose — but somehow, some way, Emily Johnstone's first novel, Bone Saw, is a lighthearted, romantic comedy as seen through the eyes of one victim of the twenty-first century's most prolific serial killer, the fictional Ricky "Straight Razor" Nickelson.

It is easy to view Bone Saw as a departure from Johnstone's previous literary works; she has enjoyed a respected career as one of America's favorite children's authors. But, careful reading of her work for children reveals a deep leitmotif, especially her children's books Notty's Third Thumb, William The Roach Knight, and most particularly Ricky Nickelson's Playhouse. "What is this theme?" you ask. To that question I say, let's consider the book.

Bone Saw is set in Las Vegas circa 2065 and centers on nanotech dealer cum victim J. Horton. Horton has designed an "enmac," slang for nanotech machine, that can be set to destroy a particular person's biological material. Not on a scale to destroy a person, but enough to clean a criminal's latent evidence from a crime scene. When Nickelson learns of Horton's invention, he kidnaps the inventor and puts him to work.

The rest of the story involves Horton's efforts to develop new enmacs that will simultaneously keep Nickelson free from capture (and thus save his own life) and tip off the police to Nickelson's identity (and thus save his own life). Horton's foil is the police detective Jenna McTitson, a nanotech engineer of low caliber, but who must learn her trade to stop Nickelson's killing spree.

Johnstone's brilliance as an author shows in her ability to make this story funny and light; it's Gothic horror, Italian gore, and Bob-Hope humor all rolled into one coherent tale. She accomplishes this through her deft dehumanization of Nickelson's victims, which we see through Horton's eyes. Bearing no culpability, and needing to free himself from the horror that will quickly break his mind otherwise, Horton quickly detaches from reality and views the proceedings as a cartoon akin to Bugs Bunny and similar Warner Bros. creations.

The reader quickly falls for this cartoon reality, and many of the laughs come in the transitions between Horton's reality and McTitson's reality. At each point of transition, Johnstone openly mocks the reader for the beliefs and views the reader had during the previous reality; she breaks the fourth wall in a way that exposes not the fiction of the novel, but the reader's silly choice to believe what she is reading.

More fun follows from the discussions of cartoon Horton and reality Nickelson, as the books becomes a subtle satire that could be aptly named Zen and the Art of Pure Evil or The Tao of Dahmer. This is where Johnstone has set herself up to capture her children's audience as it grows to enjoy mature works of pop fiction.

The final source of comedy is the distant, budding romance between cartoon Horton and reality McTitson as they communicate through simple codes in their enmacs as she hunts Nickelson and he hides same.

All told, Bone Saw is an outstanding debut novel, and I for one am looking forward to Johnstone's next mature outing.

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