This Body’s Not Big Enough for the Both of Us by Edgar Cantero
This Body’s Not Big Enough for the Both of Us (2019), by Edgar Cantero, is a metafictional roller coaster ride in which the safety bar that holds you into your seat occasionally turns into licorice whips else or disappears completely.
One definition of metafiction is a form of fiction that comments on fictional and literary elements by self-consciously departing from literary conventions within the narrative. If you like metafiction, you will get a kick out of Cantero’s story, and you will probably especially enjoy the opening, which restarts four times, I think, utilizes screenplay format, and has sentences like this one:
She wandered in like a fairy-tale top model into a CGI forest, a flutter of long skirts and flaming red hair kiting behind her, a flock of freckles swarming her eyes like glistening lakes of whoa whoa whoa, okay, wait, wait, wait.
Readers of Cantero’s Meddling Kids have met A.Z. Kimrean, the protagonist of This Body’s Not Big Enough for the Both of Us, before. Kimrean is the ultimate chimera: a body inhabited by fraternal twins. In utero, the two fetuses recombined, with brain and mind function developing fully for each of them. They share a brain and have split up the body in various ways; the cells of Adrian, the male twin, comprise the liver, the right hand, and the right leg, while the female twin, Zooey, inhabits the left hand, the heart, and so on.
(No, it’s not scientifically very plausible. This is fantasy. Don’t freak out.)
(Chimeras are real though.)
Despite some obvious psychological and social obstacles, Kimrean is in demand as a private detective in a state that might be California, in a city that might be San Francisco, although neither location much resembles the ones in this world. Since they “occupy” different halves of the brain, Kimrean is able to be analytical, logical, linear and excruciatingly detailed, as well as intuitive, lateral-thinking and far-reaching — if they are willing to work together, which they aren’t because they hate each other.
For no apparent reason the San Francisco Police Department has hired Kimrean, or Azey as they are sometimes called, to assist Danny Mojave, an undercover cop who has risen through the ranks of a gangster drug cartel run out of the town of San Carnal, a perfect analog for Palm Springs. Someone has killed one of the cartel kingpin’s sons, and a gang war is looming. SFPD needs Kimrean to “solve” the crime, or at least stall long enough that they can pull Mojave out safely. From there, nothing goes as planned. It’s all wild, zany good fun except for the people who are getting shot and for Kimrean, who, as the victim of various brilliantly choreographed self-fights, is getting more and more seriously injured, and the fact that the twin Zooey should never be allowed behind the wheel of any mobile vehicle, including bicycles or shopping carts. (Actually, Zooey driving anything is also zany good fun, as long as you are not a character in the book.)
Cantero and the story enjoy messing with the detective noir genre. The story never hesitates to comment on the tropes of detective fiction. And Cantero does this sort of thing well. The plot’s pretty stretchy and relies too heavily on nobody in the story knowing what a chrysanthemum looks like, but overall it works.
Sacrificing clarity and character on the altar of metafiction is a big risk, though. All of the characters are fairly flat, even our uniquely-conjoined twins. The story runs straight into a serious cliché with Zooey and Adrian; Adrian, the male twin, occupies the “left brain” and is therefore analytical, logical and so on; Zooey is “artistic,” intuitive, impulsive. These are both gender-linked clichés. If Cantero had reversed the twins and made Zooey the analyst and Adrian the free-spirit, this would just be a different cliché. To break the personalities up into less rigid functions, at least at first, would have spoiled a lot of the fun of the book. I see the problem, and the decision Cantero made is the best one.
This doesn’t explain why the other characters aren’t better-rounded, though. Police Chief Carlyle is a stereotype from his first sentence, and this is intentional, but Lieutenant Greggs is also a cliché. In fact, Greggs has no effect on the plot or the story, and there is another cop to provide exposition, so I don’t really know why she is even in there. Ursula is introduced as the Plucky Innocent, a bereft but scrappy child, a poor little rich girl who deserves our love. Cantero, the story and I all agree that she is the Plucky Innocent, and the story also informs Ursula of this, but it doesn’t make her any more believable. Danny Mojave has a cool Camaro, neat sunglasses and a great name, and not much more than that. Even the killer, potentially the most interesting character in This Body’s Not Big Enough for the Both of Us, gets reduced to lecturing about tropes and how to subvert them.
I also lost clarity in the spatial and temporal settings. The story is quick to let us know that this isn’t actual California. This is Fictional California, in some Fiction Present, but I don’t know when.
(Me: “They stepped out into the bullpen, spread out under cigarette fog and fluorescent lights.” You can’t smoke in public buildings — what decade is this set in?
The story: Shut up.)
While I struggled temporally, I also wrestled with the lack of geography. San Carnal is somewhere sort of near “San Francisco,” which seems to be where the actual city of San Francisco is. I assume San Carnal is in or near desert. Beyond that, it seems to drift around, as does the diner that was Ground Zero for the impending gang war.
(Me: So, Adrian is heading toward the rising sun? Is he going to turn south on I-99 sometime soon? Is San Carnal really Modesto? Is it —
The story: Shut uuuuuuup!)
I confess to mental exhaustion about two-thirds of the way through this book, although the ending managed to work, and brought back the sense of a thrill ride. A thrill ride with no safety features.
And, so, yes, I still liked it. I think Cantero tried too hard here, and I think it shows, more than it did in Meddling Kids, but I think Kimrean is a more challenging character. If you like snark, a cold-blooded humor that looks at the foibles of humanity with a cool and distant eye, or paragraphs like this:
“What’s the trigger?” Danny asked, and answered himself in the same paragraph: “The shootout with the Red Mums.”
…and if you like prose that pirouettes from straight text to screenplay format to playscript and back, then you’ll enjoy This Body’s Not Big Enough for the Both of Us.