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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker (hardcover, $24.99)(c2010)

Diogenes was a philosopher, our mythic embodiment of a cynic. As the story goes, Diogenes held up a lantern in broad daylight. When asked what he was looking for, he apocryphally answered, "a human being" (sometimes translated as "an honest man'), which by his definition very few people were. His emblem was a dog (standing for a creature that acted naturally), and a statue of a dog was erected in his honor in Corinth. What does this have to do with the book?

Disciple (yes, that's his name) Manning is a low-rent private investigator. Bakker drops bits and pieces of Disciple's past throughout the book, just enough to intrigue, just enough to explain some of Disciple's weirdness. And Disciple Manning IS an odd duck. He has complete retention of everything he has heard, everything he has seen or done. He knows he is about to smoke his 99,999 cigarette, for instance. Cool sounding, huh? Except, apparently, if you are the one with the disorder. Would your head explode if it HAD to contain so many experiences? Would your psyche blow apart if it HAD to deal with the twins of triumph and disaster over and over and over again?

What the sum of his experiences has taught Disciple is, first of all, to be cynical about everyone. Is there an authentic human being among us, or are we merely cover-ups and shells, wallowing in repetition? Pretty heavy stuff for a mystery book, eh? Disciple also knows our "tells." He has seen pretty much every expression and knows what they mean. He can sit back later and re-process every scene and conversation, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. This is a compelling character with lots of flaws.

He is hired by a well-to-do couple to locate their daughter, who ran off to join a cult and is now missing. The cult is located in a small town, so we get to meet some of the inhabitants and get the general ambiance of a town on the verge of collapse. Decaying industrial structures remind everyone of what the town used to be. It is somewhere in that rotting landscape that Jennifer Bonjour -- Bakker has such interesting names for his characters -- took her last walk from a local bar back to the compound. And disappeared.

A local reporter, Molly, thinks this story could be her big break, and she joins forces with Disciple to investigate. They meet Xenophon Baars, the cult leader and a former college professor, a la Timothy Leary. They are embraced by the police chief, Caleb Nolen ("nolens" = Lat., not willing). They all play their parts in this stylish book, which is deliberately overly coarse at times, and violent or contemplative at others.

We hear the story from Disciple's point of view, apparently because his therapist has advised him to write his thoughts down in an attempt to purge their emotional lockgrip on him. Here is one of his musings on getting information from someone:

Now I know you like to think you're like me, but you're not. Not if you're reading this, you're not. If you met me, you would take the five, cough up your honor, and count your blessings. Nurse your wounded ego with a bag of Doritos or something.
Everyone but everyone knows that readers are pussies.

An analysis of his character:

Sasha Lang, that old philosopher girlfriend I told you about, once told me I was the kind of guy who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. That was January 20, 2001, another bad day, as it so happened. ... She understood that a cynic is just someone who believes nothing to better judge everything.

R. Scott Bakker gets lots of points: for writing style, for creative storytelling, for a quirky main character. In the end, what more could you want?

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