The Tim Powers’ series continues. This is, incidentally, the second book in Powers’ Fault Lines trilogy, but you can read it first as I did.
Raw Feed (2002): Expiration Date, Tim Powers, 1996.
Powers’ specialty is creating a secret, fantastical, occult history from disparate elements, a process so cunningly done that, as one review blurb remarks, you conclude, at story’s end, “Of course. Everything fits. I can see that now.”
Here Powers plots his story in the interstices of (as near as I can tell without further research) historical facts about Harry Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison’s lives, the permanently docked Queen Mary, early motion picture history, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (the ghosts love to quote the books, at least the older ones, and the quotes from the books that head each chapter line up with the plot) and the electrical “medical” devices of Wilshire (of Wilshire Boulevard fame). Powers also puts in some convincing details about electrical work, particularly that associated with movies, and his gun stuff was brief but accurate. And, of course, Powers, being a native of Los Angeles, convincingly presents the city. We also have a bit of Theosophy and early spiritualism.
I liked the idea of sucking up, for reasons of immortality and connoisseurship, the ghosts of dead people and a whole network of ghost junkies inhabiting Los Angeles, a city where many of the street people are ghosts who have sucked up garbage to give them a corporeal, if obsessive and simple-minded, existence. I also liked Nicholas Bradshaw, the dead man, who, unlike almost all ghosts, has retained his mental faculties and is still attached to his old body and lives a rather pathetic existence in which he is denied sleep and dreams.
I found Powers narrative strategy surprising. He doesn’t wait to reveal most of the secrets of his characters’ lives and their motives. The two longest secrets he keeps are the nature of Sherman Oaks “gagging” on a ghost and the exact reason for the falling out of Sukie and Pete Sullivan (Sukie tries to sexually seduce brother Pete.) He keeps the story rolling through description, atmosphere, and action though he does dole out some secrets, like Sherman Oaks’ past, gradually. I found it interesting that the last part of the book, the part of the novel with the showdown on the Queen Mary where Neal Obstadt, Sherman Oaks, Bradshaw, Edison, Loretta deLarava meet their respective ends, is long and called “Epilogue”. That subtitling gives a hint as to one of the centers of the novel: the gradual assembly of a family in Pete Sullivan, Elizalde, and Kootie Parganas.
Normally, I don’t like the plot cliché of a man and a woman, strangers to each other, who become lovers after the plot throws them together. Here I can think of rational reasons to fault Powers use of that cliché: Elizalde is sexually uninterested in men or women yet implicitly consents to, with Sullivan, becoming Kootie’s parents, and Kootie seems to accept the idea of surrogate parents a little quickly after his own are murdered. However, all three members of this family are damaged in some way. Sullivan realizes that he needs to become attached to something permanent as opposed to the ghosts which are often bound to certain people and places by ties of guilt and shame
On the other hand, Elizalde’s transient life is a little like the corporeal ghosts — an information wave manifesting itself through different materials — and is sexually attracted to Elizalde. She feels the need to care for something, and Kootie, while resourceful and brave, misses having parents and, while he loved them, he found their Theosophical philosophies and teachings and rearing methods oppressive and limiting. Also all three are bound together by danger and fate of a sort. It is when Sullivan announces that he considers the three a family that the “Epilogue” starts.
I liked ghosts being bound to the living by shame and guilt, and I liked the various rationales and systems used for ghosts. Edison’s ghost and Sullivan approach the issue by emphasizing ghosts relationship with electromagnetic forces. Elizalde emphasizes Catholic and traditional Hispanic mythological beliefs in regard to them.
Powers technique serves as a lesson for effective fantasy. He covers a lot of detail, shows cause and effect relationship, but he doesn’t try to rationalize his ghosts using a scientific framework. He uses the language and metaphors and technology of electricity to talk about the ghosts, but, for instance, he doesn’t explain why they are can talk on a cobbled together “spirit telephone”.
Indeed, (though I may not have paid close enough attention) Powers doesn’t explain a lot: the exact nature of “birth ghosts”; why do ghosts occasionally come to Kootie’s home even before the vial of Edison’s breath is taken out of the statue of Dante?; what, exactly, does Edison want — death or existence in the sea?; why do ghosts blow up when they realize they’re dead?; why does deLarava have six birth ghosts? But Powers skill at atmosphere, the details of his secret history, and characterization helped me forgive its lapses in why.