Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Sometimes post-modernist novels, like time-travel novels, give me a headache. It’s because I’m confused. Is the writer subverting expectations with the ending, or it is just that they can’t wrap up a story? And that really shallow character, is that a flaw, or a comment on society’s view of that “type?” Did the novelist really just lift points and themes wholesale from other works because it was easy, or this is an “in-depth analysis and critique of mainstream culture’s tropes and values?”
So, sometimes these kinds of books give me a headache. On the other hand, the 3D glasses at the cinema give me a headache too, but sometimes I still want to watch something in 3D. It’s a price I pay.
I’m willing to pay that price for Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, mainly because of the narrative voice of Doctor Impossible, who (as you might have guessed from his name), is a super-villain. He is the self-assigned nemesis of CoreFire and the New Champions, who are superheroes. He’s a genius, and he plans to rule the world, right after he breaks out of this super-max-high-security-super-villain-containment-facility.
The other narrator is Fatale, a cyborg, who nailed the hiring interview and has just joined the New Champions. Fatale knows that before she was augmented into cyborghood, she was a twenty-something woman who was hit by a dump-truck in Brazil. She would not have survived her injuries if she hadn’t been augmented, but there is a mystery about the private company that designed her metal enhancements. Fatale can’t remember anything about the young woman she was.
Grossman takes on nearly every stereotype about comic book heroes and villains and weaves them into this story. It’s easy to see his influences. You’d have to work pretty hard to miss his influences, since they come at you like a super-villain’s army of robots. A short list includes:
- Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
- the Men in Black films
- Sky High
- THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
- the HARRY POTTER stories, especially if you always thought Snape was a hero.
Of course his other influences include every costumed superhero comic book ever written in English. It’s all in there, and to the extent that Grossman affectionately mocks it, Soon I Will Be Invincible is very good. Doctor Impossible, or Jonathan as his girlfriend and I like to call him, makes a compelling argument for being a supervillain, except for those moments of weakness when he starts monologuing or attempts an evil blustering laugh. Jonathan himself wonders why he does these things. Jonathan views his evilness as a vocation, as he says at one point; “You have to have the courage of your convictions.” He believes that the villains are the true thinkers:
Heroes don’t concern themselves much with things like libraries and research. Once they’ve had their own origin, they don’t try to think anymore, just fly around. Books, invention, discovery – they leave that to us.
The heroes gain wealth by taking the inventions of the villains they vanquish and patenting them. It’s not hard to draw a conclusion about that kind of behavior. The supervillains are almost like indie artists, struggling with a genuinely original vision, and constantly being plagiarized or outsold by glitzy materialistic sellouts.
Jonathan came to life for me quite early in the book, when he escapes from the inescapable containment center thanks to two young arrogant superheroes who come to interrogate him.
The center of the story is classic comic-book; a hero, his nemesis and the plucky girl they both desire. She’s smart but doesn’t recognize them; she’s tough and wise-cracking but gets menaced and kidnapped at every turn. For much of Soon I Will Be Invincible, though, we see this story through the eyes of the nemesis, and much of it is backstory. In the present, Doctor Impossible is putting one more master plan to rule the world into effect. His archenemy CoreFire has disappeared, but the New Champions, a second-generation superhero team, are ready to take on Jonathan by themselves. They include a very smart gymnast-MMA fighter with no real superpowers but lots of moves, a half-human, half-alien princess, the last elf left in the world, a feline-human hybrid, a super-powered teenager with an attitude, Fatale and a woman named Lily who used to pal around with Doctor Impossible. The team’s own relationships and backstories are tangled and complex; Blackwolf the fighter and Damsel the alien princess used to be married and now they’re divorced; nobody knows quite what to make of the elf, and both Lily and Fatale suffer from being outsiders. Damsel, Blackwolf and Elphin are rounded characters, but Feral and the teenager are little more than types. We see better character development with Jonathan, who is a plausible antihero.
Fatale has the potential to be a realistic, rounded character, and in the final pages we see that happen. She is weakened by her periodic yearning for a boyfriend. Partly, this is a necessary plot point, but mainly I found it irritating. The three main women in the story, Lily, Damsel and Fatale, are all defined by how they relate to men. Is this just sloppy characterization, or some kind of a comment about women superheroes? I’m starting to get that headache.
The plot? There is one. Don’t worry about it, or try to make sense of it, because this is a comic book. To help you with that, Grossman gives each chapter a title that comes right out of a speech balloon. “Riddle me This,” “The Game’s Afoot,” “And Now For Those Meddling Children,” and my favorite, “But Before I Kill You” make it perfectly clear that the plot is going to make no more sense, at least, than any DC or Marvel storyline. It doesn’t make any less sense, though.
I did wonder if we are supposed to think that Jonathan realizes that he is, to a large extent, a Prisoner of the Narrative. For all his cerebral philosophizing, Jonathan is a familiar person: the outsider, the weird kid, one whose head is full of vibrant dreams and fertile creativity, who is ignored or mistreated. And there is no sense here of a meritocracy or a fair competition; it doesn’t matter how smart Jonathan is, for example. Once we see that, it is clear how his final confrontation with CoreFire is going to go and that’s nearly how it does go. Grossman has one trick up his sleeve at the end, which I really liked.
So, I don’t know exactly what I think about Soon I Will Be Invincible (and I think that’s the story’s evil plan) but for the most part I liked it. Grossman has said in an interview that he does have an idea for a sequel, and I look forward to reading more about Doctor Impossible’s adventures. Wait, I’m rooting for the villain. Oh well, sometimes that’s just how it goes.
I am not much of a fan of post-modernism, especially if I can’t tell whether an author is unskilled and failing or if they’re trying to skewer a trope, so I completely understand where you’re coming from.
He is clearly, clearly a skilled writer.
Oh, to be sure, he is!
love that headline and opening paragraph. My other problem with the trope-skewering is sometimes it’s just too obvious a skewer
I’m with you. I don’t dislike all postmodern novels, but it seems like a lot of them are a bit too self-interested for my taste, more interested in being clever than in telling a good story.
Fortunately, this was a good postmodernist novel.