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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thomas World - Richard Cox

I read Thomas World by Richard Cox while on a plane to San Francisco.  It wasn't my first choice.  I fully planned on sitting down to read God's War by Kameron Hurley.  When that didn't totally grab me, I tried Necropolis by Michael Dempsey (both are also Night Shade titles and both have subsequently become more compelling).  It didn't get me either.  After about ten paragraphs of Thomas World, I was hooked.  That's not to say it's an exciting read.  In fact, it's a little slow and lacks any action to speak of.  So what made it so hard to put down?  It's a first person look at a man losing his mind wrapped around an ode to Philip K. Dick.  In other words, it's just super cool.

Thomas Phillips knows he's losing his mind. He's been losing it for as long as he can remember. And yet, when a strange old man asks him to consider that he, out of everyone in the world, knows the real truth, Thomas' life begins to spiral out of control. He loses interest in his job and is fired. He refuses his wife's suggestion of psychiatric care, and she leaves him. In the end, Thomas is alone.

Except he's not, because someone seems to be following him. What if you were Thomas? Where would you go? What would you do? What if you realized every person in your life had been scripted to be there? What if you were haunted by the idea that you'd lived all these encounters before, hundreds or even thousands of times before? And what if the person watching all this time was you? Thomas World explores what happens when the borders of reality start seeming a bit porous... when things start bleeding through the edges, challenging ones perceptions of the universe.

For those considering reading Thomas World, my only caution would be to make sure you don't mind reading a book written inside the head of someone losing his mind.  Blackouts, alcoholism, drug use, and paranoia are just a few of the hoops Cox makes Phillips jump through.  He walks a fine line between convincing his reader that Phillips is insane and providing enough information to think we might be wrong.  A few times throughout I asked myself, "Why do I care that this guy is bat shit crazy?"  Cox answers that question with compelling pace and prose that urged me forward in learning the root of Phillips' psychosis.

The novel's narrative is relatively straight forward, if not always linear.  Things are occasionally disjointed but mostly as a necessary plot point (i.e. blackouts) rather than a symptom of Cox's writing.  Much of the novel is spent with Phillips going in circles as he comes to grips with reality disintegrating around him.  At times I wondered if Thomas World started off as a short-story or novella before becoming a novel.  The novel's conclusion only takes a few dozen pages and it's possible the concept might have been more powerful in a shorter format.  Of course, no one buys novella's, so I find its length perfectly defensible.

Thematically, the use of Philip K. Dick's work is incredibly prevalent.  Cox explores how we conceptualize reality and identity.  He uses mental illness and drug use as plot devices.  All of these are notions that Dick explored extensively in his catalog of work.  Specifically mentioned throughout are novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and VALIS.  In this sense, Thomas World is an homage to Dick and should probably be read a such.

To a reader who has only read a little Dick (A Scanner Darkly and some short fiction) - did I get more or less out of Cox's novel?  Had I read more of Dick's work would I have found myself drawn into the intertextuality of it all?  Or because I was only somewhat familiar with Dick, was Thomas World fresher than it might otherwise be?  Since I can't answer these questions, I will say this - Cox made me want to read more Philip K. Dick.  I guess that's a rather back-handed compliment, but it should elevate Dick more than it denigrates Cox.

As a 6'4" man I'm going to give a pretty ridiculous compliment - Thomas World made me forget I was on an airplane.  Cox communicates his plot beautifully interlacing heartwarming scenes with the bleakness of a man's life coming down around him.  In fact, the book's final line is so divorced from the rest of the novel, that I wondered if I'd understood what Cox was doing.  Was this really a novel in the mold of Dick who questions what's real?  Or instead is Cox saying screw reality, find happiness where you can?  I don't know!  But it's pretty fun to find myself pondering these questions after reading.

To fans of Philip K. Dick, or films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I think Thomas World will be right in the wheel house.  To everyone else, check out some sample chapters and see how it goes.  It's a cool experience, but I have a feeling it's not everybody.

Sidenote: The novel includes an Afterword from Richard Cox about an experience he had in his life with regards to "on-line reality."  It provides a great deal of context to what steered him toward writing Thomas World.  I can't recommend this section highly enough.  It's very well done.

Thomas World is due out August 30, 2011 according to Amazon where it is already in stock.

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