Shambling Toward Hiroshima
When I first got a review copy of James Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima, I put it aside where it was promptly buried under an ever-proliferating mound of Urgent Stuff. Not until later on, when I finally excavated the book and saw that it had been published on February 1, did I realize that I was months tardy with a review.
But not until I read the first page did I realize the magnitude of my mistake.
Tachyon Press have brought us some other fine, literate, and funny books this year, but James Morrow’s book is the funniest and the smartest of the lot, asking the crucial question: can a man in a lizard suit end World War II before atom bombs are dropped?
Morrow has the gumption, and the writerly chops, to present us with top-secret projects so classified that even their code names have code names. In the rarefied realm where the need-to-know and the absurd meet, Morrow drops his protagonist, the book’s narrator, horror movie actor and sometime screenwriter Syms Thorley.
Thorley is hard at work on another in an endless succession of monster movie sequels. When he’s not shuffling across the screen as a mummy, he’s lurching about as the re-animated monster Corpuscula (imagine Frankenstein’s monster, made out of the mortal leavings of geniuses).
It’s his skill at "shambling" in costume that brings Thorley to the attention of the U.S. Government--specifically, the military leaders who have hatched a desperate scheme to convince Japan to surrender before either an atomic bomb or, alternatively, a trio of gigantic mutant iguanas come to be unleashed on their cities.
Though a top-secret program has the gigantic mutant lizards in hand (or, more accurately, hidden away at the bottom of a lake), cooler heads have determined that setting them loose on Japan without giving the enemy a chance to weigh the consequences of not surrendering is simply too horrific. But because the dwarf versions of the mutant monsters are too tame and playful to drive the point home (horror, crushed buildings, scorched earth from beasts that breathe fire), the military resort to Thorley for a man-sized demonstration to be carried out in the destruction of a carefully constructed miniature replica of a Japanese seaport.
It all sounds too deliciously mad, and Morrow plays it that way, with drop-dead funny writing that satirizes Hollywood as much as it does the schemes of a military delighting in high-tech toys. Morrow equips his alter-ego Thorley with a straight face and a sharp, wise-cracking tongue, and the result is devastating.
But beneath the book’s wildly inventive machinations is a more somber message that only slowly comes to the surface. What’s the cost to the body politic and the human soul when numbers and strategies supplant an understanding of human life and human suffering?
Morrow has sugared this bitter pill all too delectably, and made a subversive masterpiece out of hard-used genre tatters.
by James Morrow
Publisher: Tachyon Publications. Publication Date: February 1, 2009. Pages: 170. Price: $14.95. Format: trade paperback original. ISBN-13: 978-1-892-391-841.