Roger Zelazny, on top of writing a number of immensely popular books and stories, was one of the genre’s great stylists, with noir minimalism utilized in nearly all his works. He was likewise predictable for his main characters, often world-weary men with personal issues who find themselves facing situations they would rather avoid. I have come to think of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, who bases his fiction on these two same elements, as a successor to Zelazny, but significantly upgraded for the (post-) modern world. An exemplary text, his End of the World Blues (2006) possesses a sophisticated sense of noir that does not lack for eye-kicks (to borrow a phrase from Bruce Sterling), and features a troubled man whose choices get him in deeper and deeper trouble. The teenage girl manga fantasy, well, that’s just the icing on the cake.
Where Zelazny sought to implement history, myth, and legend into genre storylines, Grimwood brings his foundational content closer to the contemporary era. Events do occur in and outside of time, but always the rays of story emanate from 20 and 21st century concerns; identity, existentialism, and an overall loss of faith in society inform the subtext. Never over-stating these elements, Grimwood keeps his personal comments veiled, allowing the characters their voices, and in turn gives his stories more socio-cultural relevancy than Zelazny’s. Embodying nearly everything the author has created to date, End of the World Blues is a well-written, engaging story worthy of greater recognition than it received.
The novel is the story of Kit Nouveau. A former sniper in the Iraq War, he deserted after losing his marbles one day in combat, killing people for reasons that remain unclear even to him. Living in Tokyo to escape court martial in Ireland, his life has not gotten any better. Proprietor of a seedy bar, drug abuser, and caught in a bizarre marriage with a Japanese artist, his choices don’t make life any easier. Giving “English lessons” to a mob boss’s wife the last straw, he encounters a hitman on a late night walk home. More surprising, the cosplay homeless girl he gives coffee to most mornings is the one who steps in to save his life. The mystery of Lady Neku unraveling in the aftermath, so too does Nouveau’s life in Japan, forcing him to confront the demons he thought he’d left behind.
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the great magicians of speculative fiction. Through sheer power of prose he is able to transform what is a typical genre story into an experience that feels like something more (even though it may not actually be). Though writing in an entirely different style, Grimwood is able to accomplish the same. The core plot of End of the World Blues is tried and true: a man’s wife dies, and he must solve the mystery — a mystery which means entering the world of organized crime without getting himself killed. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a story has, and can be, rendered mundane, even boring. But that Grimwood, like Kay, invests such an effort in presentation, readers are likewise able to invest themselves in the story and are rewarded on a word by word, phrase by phrase basis. Grimwood is simply a superb stylist.
Slipping quietly under the radar of American sci-fi fandom (yet wholly deserving of the audience), Grimwood writes at-depth prose and plots his stories superbly if not abstractly. Perhaps a writer’s writer, the sentences of End of the World Blues deftly describe scenes, jump to the heart of character through clipped thoughts and feelings, and indirectly lead the reader on a journey of story that is both close to home and larger than life, all in a paucity of words rooted in the characters. William Gibson is a stylist of similar dimension, but I would say Grimwood one-ups the genre master for profundity, veiled satire, and turn of phrase – “…time is an infinite number of doors forever locking behind you.” is a nice example.
In short, End of the World Blues is a mystery novel whose orthodox storyline is rendered sublime by its cosmopolitan style and light, satirical nihilism. Grimwood pens a quality tale informed by post-modern political and identity issues, the plot which plays out possesses all the elements of noir crime, yet rises above for its inherent humanist coloring (The Deer Hunter comes to mind as comparison from that aspect). Lady Neku’s fantasy cum reality of her personal history, while perhaps appropriating something from Japanese cosplay culture, remains such an additional point of imagination that it fully confirms the novel’s singularity. (Readers who don’t get her portion of the narrative, don’t bite on Grimwood’s presentation of it as reality, rather understand it is her imagined reality, and everything will flow smoothly.) Thus, it’s not precisely fair to say Grimwood is a modern upgrade of Zelazny, yet the similarities between the two outnumber the differences, meaning readers of one may enjoy the other. The other obvious parallel is another writer of noir minimalism, William Gibson. The near-future settings, the interest in Japan, the writing style, and the attention to detail are strong parallels. But where Gibson’s characters remain people viewed from a distance as objects commenting on society, Grimwood’s are those the reader becomes involved with, the commentary being more personal. He thus comes recommended, particularly to US readers, as he is deserving of a much wider audience.