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Do the Locomotion

by Jeff Nania on December 14, 2011

Machine Man
by Max Barry
Vintage, 288 Pages, $14.95


Have you ever misplaced your phone, knowing that it would turn up, but not knowing for the life of you where? This seems to have been the initial error (or blessing, depending on your view) that led to Dr. Charles Neumann’s industrial accident (or discovery—again, depending on your view) in Max Barry’s novel Machine Man.

He woke up that fateful day and reached for his phone, but it was not there. He scanned his apartment and realized it must be at the lab. Sure enough, it turned up in “Lab 4,” which is where “the Clamp” is located. The object’s name is a bit of an understatement. It’s really two heavy hydraulic steel plates. Anyway, Neumann spots his phone while he’s supposed to be 100-percent focused on the Clamp, and lo and behold—he gets stuck in the Clamp and loses a leg. “The door opened and Jason [Neumann’s assistant] said, ‘Oh fuck, fuck,’” Neumann says as chapter one finishes.

Obsessed with the new prosthetic leg he builds himself, Neumann (being a scientist and all) spends many pages of the book manufacturing new superior body parts for himself as part of a line of Better Body Parts by his company Better Future. You can imagine how this could turn into a nightmare real quickly.

Max Barry’s prose falls somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk. He is not a monopolar depressive like Vonnegut, but his material seems to have similar futuristic/fatalistic overtones. His sentences (and the book in general) move along very quickly like both authors, but his tongue-in-cheek approach more closely resembles Palahniuk.

Neumann’s first stint in the hospital after his accident introduces him to prosthetist Lola Shanks. They develop a relationship, and this seems to surprise Neumann because he is not a people person. “There’s something about me that’s repellent,” he says. “I dont mean disgusting. I mean like magnets. The closer people get, the stronger their urge to move away.” Later on, when Shanks ends up in the hospital, we hear what exactly it is that attracts her to him.

One of the things about Barry’s writing that keeps things unfolding throughout the book is that he is discovering the story as we are. In interviews, he says he doesn’t write with an ending in mind because he prefers to let the story unfold organically as he writes it. This gives the sensation that the plot is happening as you read it because essentially it is. After Barry’s first three novels, readers were chomping at the bit for some more literary magic. To remedy this problem, Barry began serializing a new book by writing a page a day, making it available on his blog for his fans and critics to leave comments. The serial that evolved out of this process eventually became Machine Man (after many edits).

Released this past August, Machine Man is Barry’s fourth novel, but this will be his first novel to be adapted as a movie. That’s right, Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Pi, Requiem For A Dream) has signed on as director of the film version of Machine Man, with Mark Heyman screenwriting.

Machine Man reads just fine in its analog paper-bound version, but it is also one of the launch titles for a new app called SubText, which allows readers and authors to post comments throughout the book, somewhat like how SoundCloud allows listeners to do this with music. Barry says that this is also a horrible way to read a book, at least from an author’s standpoint, but is another example of fans taking over the way they consume media.

Barry’s work may fall into the lump of work known as sci-fi, but he is a humorist at heart. Open his website (maxbarry.com), and the tab at the top says, “Max Barry—He Writes Things.” In an interview on his site and available on YouTube, Barry deals with the comparison of his main character, Charlie Neumann, to Iron Man. He says, essentially, that Iron Man built his suit and wears it, but that Charlie “is the suit,” and is essentially remaking his own body piece-by-piece. He says this is an important difference, and that “if you want to draw comparisons . . . give me the guy who makes his own body.” In fact, the first sentence of the book seems to sum up this sentiment in a slightly different way. Neumann says, “As a boy, I wanted to be a train. I didn’t realize this was unusual—that other kids played with trains, not as them.”