100 Years of Vicissitude

I just finished reading an advance copy of Andrez Bergen's new novel, '100 Years of Vicissitude', and I had to share the experience. I don't review books very often here, but I couldn't resist in this case. Some of you may recall my review of his first novel, the remarkable and amusing genre-buster 'Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat', published in 2010. Read that review here.
I confess that I had a sense, before even opening '100 Years...', that I knew what to expect from this author. How wrong I was. While TSMG riffed on noir and classic sci-fi referents and popular culture, skating deliriously from gritty action to cinematic set pieces of dialogue, 100 Years is in a different class altogether. TSMG was fun, charged with high voltage, high calorie pop iconography forced through a genre framework. 100 Years is a far more nuanced piece, and in my opinion, it hits you harder as a consequence.

A lesser author might have continued to mine the vein opened in TSMG: like I said, it was a fun ride. Bergen is obviously made of different stuff, and he has taken the bold decision to draw one thread from the earlier novel and weave from it a rich tapestry of a very different kind. If this was a risk, then it has paid off.

100 Years of Vicissitude is dreamlike, and bewitchingly evocative. The action starts in a strange landscape that made me think of Kurosawa's wild places from the film 'Ran', dream landscapes where there is furious movement and no progress. Our protagonist finds himself wandering beyond death, resenting the absence of a guiding Virgil to lead the way. Of course, he is not alone for too long, and the subsequent tale is a weaving together of the lives of an unlikely couple - the irredeemable oligarch and the centenarian former Geisha - thrust together beyond the finitude of death.

The majority of the action involves our pair revisiting the memories of Kohana, who, despite being a century old (and dead) appears as the 15 year old Geisha she once was. Kohana's memories take in a broad sweep of Japan's tempestuous passage through the Twentieth Century, and in this regard the novel is truly epic. Bergen has succeeded in evoking the atmosphere of times and places both terrible and peaceful, and long gone. The reader feels like an eavesdropper, a strange traveller; much like the protagonist Wolram E. Deaps, we are taken from our comfort zone into far flung times and places. For Deaps, it is through the agency of his death; for us, it is through the convention of reading and the page.

To tell you any more seems unnecessary. I will only say that I grew very fond of these characters, and they have remained with me for days now, a glowing and spectral presence on the fringes of my consciousness. And is that not what fiction is for? That strange alchemical process of introducing you to these people who are real, but not really, although they may touch our emotions in real ways. It's a kind of magic, and it's intoxicating.

Read 100 Years of Vicissitude. It is a delight.