‘Cold Black Earth’ (A Book Review)

cold black earth


Review by Curtis Cole
Author Sam Reaves knows how to set the mood: for his latest suspense novel, Cold Black Earth, he paints a dilapidated picture of American industry gone wrong; de-industrialization has made the land “looked tired” (1 ), causing protagonist Rachel Lindstrom to fear finding her “lost Eden… changed” (3). Rachel has good reason to be frightened of change after being away from her home town, Peoria, Illinois, for over twenty years—during which she missed the death of both of her parents (6) as well as the suicide of her sister-in-law (7)—while being forced to fight on behalf of Empire in Iraq, she now desires nothing more than an existential recuperation, to be babied and doted upon while she reconnects with old friends, hopefully assuaging her war-time horrors. All of which points to the realization that what haunts Rachel is not memories of her youth, of finding her home changed, but the engines of American capitalism itself.

The economic situation of Peoria is stark throughout the novel. Old barns are town down (4) not merely because they are old, but because farming practices have swerved to large-scale businesses of ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’; those of the kind which favor tens-of-thousands of livestock (26). When Rachel’s brother, Matt, says that “Peoria’s not exactly the economic powerhouse of the nation these days” (3), he is referring to the predominant conclusion which Rachel stumbles upon during her tour of home and discovering the barn and chicken coops empty (9), namely that what ails Peoria is neoliberalism, that virus which has drained labor to the point of metaphor—that now even the land itself, the cold black earth of the title’s sake, now suffers from factory jobs going overseas (47), the characteristic which gives the land its tired and bleak traits. Labor has been so assaulted that no future seems bright. Indeed, so dire is Peoria that the only “break” it could receive was during the eighties when after “the plants closed” a medium security prison was built, allowing the town to cut its teeth “on a growth industry” (15). Needless to say it is not surprising when severe reaction sets in and violence, murder, fills the gap left by industry; for when one makes a deal with the Prison-Industrial Complex devil, nothing but social discord can follow. For Rachel’s post-State Department life, also coincides with the escape of notorious murderer-cannibal Otis Ryle (35); an allegory for how capital’s contradictions, its cannibalizing effects, ultimately devour those who brought it into existence in the first place. With but only the bankers and conmen, the upper-strata of the petty-bourgeoisie, coming out on top (59), clearly this little hamlet has seen better days.

Cold Black Earth is a class conscious novel. Acting as a record of de-industrialization, it stands—yes—as an allegory for economic decline but more specifically, it does so via what some critical theorists within the school of Affect theory dubs as “an affectual procedure”, or something which delimits the emotions of an individual within a space, called an “existential territory”, where a series of events are setting in motion complicated relations to human interaction, tinged by class structures.

Rachel adheres to such a reading perfectly. At the beginning of the book she is overly tired to the point of seemingly projecting her exhaustion onto the Earth, while at the end she is forced to swallow the bitter truth of her sojourn where though she “had this fairy tale home” (262), there are ultimately no utopias—no escapes into a perfect capitalism where affects enable a crooked grin to come to the mouth of a one-time prom date. She realized that her existential territory, Peoria, tried her absence and sentenced her to reality: her delimitation was precisely her understanding of the illusory nature of the perfect bourgeois-oriented affect, that day-dream which cows the masses into accepting what has been called “Disney Dreams”, of living happily-ever-after with the unhappy reality of neoliberal de-industrialization. Rachel preservers through hell to find herself once more on the train-station platform, leaving Peoria, this time with the knowledge that there is no affectual escape within capitalism—the issues and problems which arise must be internalized and conquered from within, away from that, loosely defined, counterrevolutionary ‘brain chemistry’ which so ensnared those who lived before her as farm wives looking out over the rolling meadows, wondering what lied beyond.

I will only offer a word of caution by mentioning the tone… it is bleak. The atmosphere of the novel is one of isolation, depression, and fear. The author brings attention to the classic Victorian text Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and for good reason: from start to end the story here reflects a contemporary interpretation, from perhaps somewhat more optimistic heights, of that nineteenth century text; people who dislike ‘the serious’ should steer clear of this work. For anyone else, however, especially those who are considering reading more suspense books, I can say Cold Black Earth is a decent place to start.

With Sam Reaves an experienced author, and my lack of fault finding in the actual gears of this latest book, its punctuation and grammar, I would say that any fan of his previous books could back the literary soil of Cold Black Earth. Although at times the character development could do with a bit of a kick and the plot more directed, over-all, I believe that this novel is more existential than thriller: at the end of the day this is a story about a woman attempting to find herself after a hard life; the serial killer on the loose is there merely to accentuate and add additional resonance to her struggles by means of subtext. One should approach this novel as one would a piece of modern art—meaning, there is more there than what is on the surface.

Cold Black Earth
Sam Reaves
262 pages. Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle. $4.99 (Kindle), $8.35 (Paperback). 2015.

A Violent Musical: A Review of P.J. Manney’s “(R)evolution”

Review by Curtis Cole

Little doubt remains that contemporary America is a dark place: terrorist threats, an out of control police state, and the rabid advance of new technology, which may or may not be secretly utilized by corporations and other shadowy organizations to advance their own agenda, all point to a less then pleasing picture; incidentally, these issues are what P.J Manney, author of (R)evolution, the first book in her Phoenix Horizon project, tackles. Following the debut of Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy, (R)evolution packs a powerful narrative punch, letting the reader know that the role of plot-affects still occupy a central role in Manney’s writing. Combining techno-thriller chic with spy-esque adventure and intrigue, the story’s musical and emotional vibrations reverberate throughout the novel, forcing the reader to acknowledge the interconnectedness of humanity to the world around them, and that even in the time of over-riding artificial connections to pop culture and the mass media, people still possess the ability to connect to one another on a primordial level.

The story is one of protagonist Peter Bernhardt. Founder of a nanobot company called Bioengineers he is unjustly ‘thrown under the bus’ and vilified as a conspirator after a devastating terrorist attack leaves over seventy-thousand U.S citizens dead. With his life’s work confiscated, and he and his wife investigated by the government, Peter becomes desperate to defend his innocence and research; reaching out to friends in the hopes of starting a new line of research involving artificial brain cortexes and hippocampus’s, he is introduced to a secret society called the Phoenix Club which offers to fund his research in exchange for the rights to the work and to ensure that the United States remains on the cutting edge of technological progress.

As one may have expected, between the elaborate rituals and decadent festivals alluding to the late Roman Empire’s avarice, the Phoenix Club is not what they claim to be: patriotic saints battling for America’s soul both at home and abroad. Rather, they are little more than glorified gangsters constituting the real power behind the White House; they are a ruling class composed of the best and brightest—of the richest industrialists, most righteous (re: monetarily successful) pulpit pounders, the sharpest scientific and most innovative artistic minds. Dealing in absolute, the club deals a heavy hand: treason is swiftly and brutally dealt with through assassination, incompetence punished with demotion and shame, while insolence leads inevitably toward a stagnated career. Sworn to secrecy Peter struggles with balancing his personal reservations about the club, his desire to clear his name and renew his research, while keeping his wife in the dark. Placed on the fast-track to full membership though, Peter has little time to weigh his options and plunges head-first into cooperating with them, understanding that he has no other choice.

After refusing to kill a traitor as part of his initiation ceremony, however, Peter flees the club’s boathouse, barely escaping with his life. Rescued by a mysterious woman named Talia, Peter is thrust into a psychological hell. With his wife presumed dead, killed by club hit-men, and his father—in addition to his old life—violently effaced, Peter makes a decision to reinvent himself; hiring the help of expert hackers, so as to steal money from the club, and with the help of some cosmetic surgery and technological enhancements, Peter is reborn as “Thomas Paine” and elects to wage a one-man’s war against the Phoenix Club.

Much about this book is fantastic. Manney is a skilled writer whose talent shines through; the character development feels organic and natural, never rushed or artificial, while the story well-constructed with the big picture in mind from beginning to end, despite a few instances of eye-rolling dues-ex machnia. What sets (R)evolution out from the crowd, however, is Manney’s infusion of music into the narrative. This is a book with a soundtrack, so to speak. Whenever there is a track referenced within a scene the reader should take note since the content of that song informs the scene; any lover of music will be delighted upon listening to a song and witnessing how it synching up with the scene. Adding a whole new level of immersion into the story, while granting the reader insight into the emotional world of the characters, as well as the allegorical importance of some of the plot developments. Critical theorists, as well as lovers of song, will find much joy in deconstructing or analyzing the textual signifiers.

This kind of informing extends to the aforementioned pieces of social-commentary. Politically, the concern of the novel is centered on people’s relationship to society and the role technology plays in governance; the music in each scene hints at the background political content—hearing R.E.M’s Welcome to the Occupation blaring in the background during a tense or intimate scene speaks more of the message between-the-lines than an initial close reading. Digging down a bit deeper into the lines, however, the reader will glean many instances of characters deriding legislative corruption and authoritarianism; the decay of American ideals, the vision of the Founding Fathers being perverted, and a few instances critiquing nationalistic fervor, Manney’s convictions reveal a strong Populist articulation of center-left libertarian ideology, a stance backed-up by a few of the song choices, especially when played back against a scene. One can hardly pass a chapter without (literally) hearing the sub-text speak: that those unique individuals will attempted to be subsumed underneath the herd of the “they” and subsequently must fight their own battle to differentiate from the conglomerate.

Philosophically, the novel takes inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche. The narrative falls into a “Will-to-Power” superstructure. Peter’s differentiation from the club takes shape as a liberation tale. Peter intends to wield his enlightened/augmented consciousness/body, repeatedly referred to as Nietzsche’s Übermensch, in order to prevent the (mostly) free-thinking world from falling into the clutches of a tightly-knit herd (the Phoenix Club). Even so, there is a caveat to be made: Peter’s violent insurrection at the novel’s end indicates a transcendence of Nietzschian orthodoxy. With the signification of violence as the decisive factor in inching toward a resolution of the central contradiction of the novel, that of historical progress as praxis being retarded by anti-dialectical forces (the club), it is unsurprising to see the anti-dialectical stance of Nietzsche jettisoned for the more progressive, though not revolutionary, embrace of vulgar materialist musings hinting at a postmodernist radicalism.

However unintentional it may have been on the author’s part, the dialectical—or unity of opposites—theory runs strongly throughout the text. Two contradictions emerge. That between the “organic individual” and the “enhanced individual”, as well as between the anti-historic and historic ideas of progress; both are part of the central contradiction in the novel, that of how society in the time of mass markets and media must invariably change, yet has the added dilemma of doing so while straddling the gauntlet between forces fundamentally at odds. Within the confines of the first contradiction (between the natural individual and the artificially enhanced) we see the dialectical system as a series of qualitative leaps (ultimately influencing the historical contradiction): Peter as Peter (un-augmented), Peter augmented (cyborg), Peter reborn as Thomas Paine, Paine enhanced by additional augmentations, Paine transcended into new being; death and life play out in relation to primitive organics, the natural, and between technology. The second contradiction, meanwhile, finds articulation within the realm of the plot. With the club’s ultimate fate appearing to be in decline relative to the oppositional aspect, in lieu of Peter’s assault on their headquarters disrupting their invincibility mythos, and by extension their indefatigable belief in stagnant history, as the losing edge to the oppositional kind of historic formulation: of progress. As Peter remarks to a beaten foe, “Even though your acts were not chaos theory’s piddly butterfly wings—but dragon wings whipping storms into hurricanes—history will continue gratefully without you” (501). Such a declaration admits the powerful role of the once mighty dominant side (the Phoenix Club as representing stagnant historical progress) while forcing a transition into the opposite: the formerly weaker side, the Peter-as-augmented-organic (historical progress), now becomes (presumably) the dominant side of the contradiction, with the ability of the club to operate now checked by (sumptuary) insipid revolutionary flares.

All in all I greatly enjoyed reading (R)evolution. While there were moments which I was not sold on, such as Manney’s grating representation of women as either emotional wrecks, merely tripping up the male protagonists, or as sexualized parodies of actual people; or in the case of politics, of famous leaders of revolutionary national liberation movements being demonized with ahistorical slurs, the good of the novel out-weighed the bad. At the end of the day I still come to the conclusion that whatever its shortcomings, Manney’s book is something special. Crafted with love and pride, it is a novel for an age tinted with distrust and violence, one which expertly melds techno-thriller and sci-fi into an intoxicating whole.

P.J. Manney
538 pages. Published by 47 North. $4.99 (Kindle). 2015.