Friday, 20 November 2009

JACK O'CONNELL'S BOX NINE: A Forgotten Friday Entry

I'm revisiting Box Nine specifically because O'Connell is in Britain to promote his latest novel, The Resurrectionist, but more generally because it is hard to believe that a novel which won the then prestigious $50,000 Mysterious Press First Crime Novel Prize, and which has been followed by four books full of both invention and erudition, should even spring to mind as being overlooked today. But Box Nine appears to be out of print in America, and although The Resurrectionist may be his best book yet, it has not received anything like the attention it deserves.

Box Nine, like all O’Connell’s novels, is set in Quinsigamond, which is based geographically on Worcester, Massachusetts (where O'Connell lives) but is a futuristic fantasy of a mill town crossed with the Blade Runner LA of cyberpunk novels. In Box Nine there’s a new drug around town, called Lingo, which gets you speaking in tongues but also drives you to fiercer rage than the worst crank you ever saw. The high is great, but the price is high.

Connections to Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine are obvious, and also to Naked Lunch, which first posited language as a viral infection, and addiction. Language, in one way or another, has been at the heart of all O'Connell's work. When Box Nine first appeared, I noted O’Connell’s most relevant influences appeared to be the early Thomas Pynchon, concerned with issues of entropy, the early Don DeLillo, apparently concerned with early Pynchon, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (and the Borges who inspired Cortazar) and of course Blade Runner, and its source material, Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

This may have seemed a strange mix to apply to a small city in central Massachusetts, however fantastically it is imagined, but it does work, particularly because O’Connell’s alternately manic and dreamy prose echoes not only the effects of Lingo, but his concerns with the uses and abuses of language itself. I am amazed this guy is not being taught in post-modernist English Departments all around the world.

Leonore Thomas is the drug cop investigating Lingo. Problem is, she’s a thrill-seeking speed freak gun fetishist who might be more at home on the other side of the fence. In a city torn apart by ethnic gangs, the big drug lord is Cortez (Cortex? Neil Young's Cortez the Killer? Keats' 'stout Cortez'?) and the microcosm of society O'Connell presents is more like a slide full of bacteria wiggling under a microscope. It works as a crime novel, it works as a 'mainstream' novel, it works as a cult 'slipstream' novel. The bottom line is, it works.

O’Connell is one of those writers who can bend his prose to what he’s doing. There aren’t many of them around. It's form as an extension of content—and it wasn't a surprise I discovered Robert Creeley as one of his earlier influences. I, and other reviewers, keep comparing O'Connell to so many great writers not because he's derivative, but because he's unique, the kind of writer who makes you want to compare him to those other great writers who've blown you socks off with your first hit. Sort of like Lingo. And now I try to compare his career path, and I find no one close to the same, perhaps Joseph McElroy or someone else you probably haven't heard of either, or maybe Donald Harington, most of whose books were set in his own fictional Arkansas (see my obit of him here). But he's the real deal, and Box Nine is the place to get that first hit. No Exit Press have kept him in print in the UK, and their cover for The Resurrectionist should be one that attracts the kind of 'sophisticated' general readership who perhaps might pass by the book were it billed as crime. Their cover for Box Nine was a beauty too: Dick would have loved it. At least one publisher gets it.

Box Nine No Exit Press 1998 (second edition)
ISBN 9781901982275

The Resurrectionist No Exit Press 2009
ISBN 9781842433065


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Brian Lindenmuth said...

Love O'Connell's work.

About a year ago I said that O’Connell is the outlier that the other outliers fear, respect and speak about in reverent and hushed tones.

One of the most unique writers working today.

Great write-up