A book best imagined in black and white while a propulsive score to something like Mad Max: Fury Road creates a sonic wall between you and your everyday reality.
The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey is a book best imagined in black and white while a propulsive score to something like Mad Max: Fury Road creates a sonic wall between you and your everyday reality. Set in a war-torn city called Lower Proszawa, a Berlin stand-in, the book has the aesthetic of a film like The Third Man, but with enough robots, mad science and genetic experimentation to make it exquisitely science fiction.
Kadrey is best known for Sandman Slim, his bestselling fantasy noir set in contemporary Los Angeles and written in the sort of hardboiled, first-person one would expect from a twist on the private eye genre. For good or ill, that series sets the expectations for the author’s work, and Kadrey takes those expectations and defies them here. He’s intricately crafted the world of Lower Proszawa as more than just a proxy for Germany between the World Wars, but created a visceral statement about the ravages of war on the mass psyche. We don’t look at the devastation of our wars in this country. It is kept distant. It is part of the air in Lower Proszawa, and that fictional immediacy forces us to think about all the places bombs have dropped in recent memory. We live in a state of perpetual war but are never asked to confront the results.
If we could process what we’ve done we might behave like Lower Proszawans. They’ve gone a little mad and live in a city in the throes of a party that began with the end of its great war but no conclusion seems near. Its sister city, Higher Proszawa, was decimated by artillery and plague bombs, and the flood of poor and wealthy immigrants helped remake Lower Proszawa into a series of neighborhoods devoid of a middle between the poor and wealthy. Some quarters have been splendidly rebuilt in accordance with the power of their residents and others have been neglected for precisely the same reason, but all citizens live in the shadow of Schöne Maschinen, the massive armaments factory that blots out the sun with clouds of coal dust while manufacturing the weapons for the next war. Until those shots are fired, it is a time of drugs, sex, decadence and experimental art and theater. The center for all those activities is the Grand Dark, one of the oldest theaters in the city.
Kadrey’s protagonist, Largo Moorden, a 21-year-old bicycle courier, rides the streets of this city. He is one of the more intriguing heroes in recent memory due to his profession and his drug addiction to a substance called Morphia, a numbing agent like morphine taken in liquid form under the tongue. Largo avoided the war and maintained a sense of innocence despite the violence and squalor he grew up in. He reads more like a teenager than a young man with an unblemished handsomeness that stands in stark contrast to the Iron Dandies, veterans whose faces have been so marred by war that they wear their helmets and gas masks to conceal the damage. Largo carries the guilt of a man who avoided conflict, but his mettle is about to be tested in every conceivable way. The forces of the state and revolution bare down on him, but all Largo wants is to be safe in the arms of Remy, his girlfriend who works as an actress at the Grand Dark.
Kadrey does everything he can to break Largo, but survival and ambition compel his character, making Largo a surprising fighter. Kadrey uses a tight third-person narration to stick close to his courier, and the character woos us with both his innocence and drug-addled dreams of social ascension. Morphia plays a central role in his relationship to Remy, a shared excess though he is the primary indulger, and it’s hard to tell if we are watching a shallow relationship that’s on the cusp of ending or something greater in the midst of transformation. Largo has just received a promotion to head courier. Remy has decided to devote more time to her craft. Together they are a light in a city described in constant grayness, but maturity and ambition are robbing them of each other. It is at the moment when they are breaking apart that Kadrey throws Largo into the tempest of the conspiracies he has unwittingly partaken in. He is hunted by man, machines and literal dogs of war, and he’s stripped of everything. Returning to Remy remains the force that drives him, and it allows him to maintain something of himself despite how drastically events change him.
The Grand Dark reads as something not only unique to the author, but to the genre. We discuss it within the constraints of genre, but it is really just literature and deserves consideration in that loftier categorization. Kadrey will see his name on the Hugo and Nebula ballots, but he deserves the shortlists for literary prizes beyond those. Sadly, it’s a bad year to publish a masterpiece. The market is crowded with them, and the coming best books of 2019 lists grow more and more unruly.