James Newman scores a knockout with ‘Fun City Punch’, a descent into the urban hell awaiting us all
Between the thick canopy of surveillance cameras lapping up everyday life in his native England and all the government snooping going on everywhere, including in Thailand, James Newman seems to be badly spooked. He’s gone off the deep end. And with the novel “Fun City Punch”, he welcomes us to his nightmare.
Big Brother’s electronic eyes on every lamppost are a vast Gorgon’s mane of snakes lunging at the guilty and innocent alike. Those caught doing naughty things are treated to a round of attitude readjustment in a state-run spa called the Basic Behaviour Punch. It “cures drug addiction and non-conformism”. The imposed happiness earns this freakish metropolis the name Fun City.
If all this sounds a little too close for comfort between coups, the fun is just beginning in Fun City. Fun City (“a town with all the organisation of a kicked-over termite hill”) feels a lot like Bangkok, but it’s got a beach and harbour, so maybe it’s part Pattaya too. Newman, hailing from London, also tips his fedora to that burg’s grimy rat-infested warrens of old, adding a certain subterranean charm.
The author has just turned 40, making him the youngest published purveyor of Southeast Asian noir among the growing club of literary expat types huddled in the subtropics. The breadth of shocking experiences that Newman describes in his crime fiction, though, suggest an age closer to 140. And evidently the whole time’s been misspent.
The reality is that he furiously channels all the energy of (relative) youth into contriving countless stories about people who are either instantly recognisable or bizarre beyond recognition, going about their respective lives against a meticulously chiselled fretwork backdrop. Surrealism has its place in characterising his fiction, but specifically there’s more Geiger than Dali, more Ernst than Magritte.
“Fun City Punch” is private eye Joe Dylan’s fifth dramatic caper following the dust-ups of “Bangkok Express”, “Red Night Zone”, “The White Flamingo” and “The Black Rose”. Add to these a slew of short-story collections (including one called “Thai Meditations”) and a couple more sharp-edged thrillers with titles like “Stripper Ripper”, and you wonder if Newman ever spares time to sleep.
Odds are that he writes while sleeping, the nightmares tumbling out in typescript. Newman’s prose is a bombardment. Being swept over Niagara must feel like this. He’s Jackson Pollock at the wheel of a careening Buick, Burroughs and Kerouac sharing the back seat in a junkie sweat.
The beats go on. Twelve pages in there’s a rant straight out of Ginsberg’s “Howl”, just one part of which sounds like this:
“The sexually depraved, financially deprived clowns, liars, cheaters, mime artists and children’s entertainers who just weren’t that funny anymore. Jesus sycophants, game show hosts, talent show losers and the occasional guitarist who knew the three basic chords required to keep in union with troubled college visionaries who painted
vulgar abstractions in twilight hours and withdrew from public exhibition through fear of selling out.”
On the book’s front cover is an unbeatable if unattributed description: “Naked Lunch meets Clockwork Orange”. That’s Burroughs, for all the sticky icky hallucinations and cut-up sentence construction waiting inside, and Burgess, for the dystopian horror show that comes in gouts of unsettling strange language.
“Fun City Punch” has enough jagged language that readers might first think Newman requires remedial English classes, but more likely it’s deliberate. “What else could I do but use, use with food?” someone says when the subject of food hasn’t come up. “The room span” and soon after “my mind span”. That’s old English and correct as such, but it trips you up. Present and past tense toggle back and forth. Words repeat in jarring fashion rather than echoing poetically. It’s idiomatic slang, be-bop phrasing with unself-conscious off-notes, all produced at high speed. It keeps you off balance and under stress.
By the not far distant future, city life has descended into a truly dreadful state of affairs, the iPhone and Facebook have been replaced by handheld “life-enhancer devices” and a slew of wholly selfish apps that, for example, let you earn credits (think bitcoins) by squealing on your neighbours. Information technology becomes informant technology, and a handy wallet too.
While the rich gaze down from estates in the hills, the proletariat is kept amused with this all-purpose gadget, a full array of soul-compressing entertainment and a share in the endless opportunities to profit from the misery of others. Rebels emerge from deep tunnels in a Punch Resistance movement that clashes with the heavily armoured and pretty much lawless Fun City Police.
Somehow, unremarkably in this
maelstrom, a wife goes missing and Joe Dylan is hired to track her down. He finds her soon enough, but goes through a fairly literal Hell bringing her back. His odyssey takes him to the Fun City Comedy Club (check), a French pop superstar who’s jumped to his death from a balcony (check), and the Very Special Bar, whose accommodating staff of mutants, cripples and dwarfs caters to the coming generation of fetish tourists (check, probably).
Dylan is forever sparking up Death Cloud cigarettes, chugging back a hazardous liquor called Tiger Sweat and noticing that
everyone he talks to has their “eyes fixed on something that may have been over my left shoulder”. He’s right to be paranoid, of course, even before someone jams a “spider” device up his nose that anchors itself in his frontal lobe and takes control of his behaviour.
Imagine all this in just 275 pages, and then add Alien Hand Syndrome, “a cyberpunk thalidomide casualty”, a cult of “Gamers” manipulating lovelorn men online, mind-altering scopolamine easily purchased on the street, and a brute who gets both hands cut off and doesn’t mind because now he can become a cyborg.
By tapping into the “urban myth” of scopolamine, by the way, Newman may have inadvertently anticipated a dastardly North Korean trick – it’s also known as Devil’s Breath, in this setting a powder that incapacitates the victim when blown in the face.
If the writing in “Fun City Punch” is meant to keep the reader teetering on the edge of the parapet, there are ample passages worth loitering over to steady the nerves. Pause to appreciate this: “His face was like a car crash. You couldn’t take your eyes away from it.” Another is “trapped by the illusion of escape”. And perhaps this line just as easily fits the novel too: “darker than a raven’s promise”.
Fun City Punch
By James A Newman
Published by Spanking Pulp Press, 2016
Available at Amazon.com, US$12.99 (Bt453)