Attack of the 50-Foot Novel
Ryan Boudinot Builds Manhattan in Puget Sound
T he first few pages of Ryan Boudinot's second novel, Blueprints of the After-life, are hard to stomach. A dishwasher named Woo-jin scours through garbage heaps for abandoned treasures while eating someone else's forgotten leftovers he snuck out at the end of his shift at Il Italian Joint, some "congealed gravy fries" and a partially eaten burger. This passage builds into a nauseating tower of description: Woo-jin is excited to discover "the remaining pissdroplets of beer" left in a can of Bud Light on the mounds of trash, his clothes are "schlupped" to his body, and then he finds the dead body of a woman with earwigs crawling all over her face.
Blueprints lifts its eyes from the dump soon enough, taking in a huge cast of characters and a bleak satirical earth that, if you squint just right, resembles our own in some highly uncomfortable ways. This is Seattle in the distant future, and Woo-jin is an average citizen making his pedestrian commute between work and home. "He crossed the oily Duwamish into the ruins of South Park," where he finds "ghosts of Mexican restaurants" and "Sunday circular advertisements pushed along by an underperforming wind."
The country is a wreck, human beings are almost worth less than the garbage they produce, and virtually every system we take for granted today has broken down into a caricature of its modern-day incarnations. The destruction came about when a glacier named Malaspina became sentient and attacked North American cities on a continent-wide rampage, bringing "thousands of angry polar bears" in its wake. Those bad old days that left everyone reeling in a desperate, battered United States of America are universally referred to as the Fucked Up Shit. It was such a climactic shift that time is annotated now in FUS, rather than BC or AD.
The narratives splinter, then launch into their own weird orbits. Woo-jin discovers, via a message from the future, that he is to become the author of a best-selling self-help book titled How to Love People. A film archivist finds herself in a house full of clones (they are all—from the youngest to the oldest—named Federico). A man named Dirk Bickle might have all the answers to everyone's questions about artificiality and fate and what the future wants from them. And everything seems to revolve around a giant full-scale replica of a pre-FUS Manhattan being built in the middle of Puget Sound.
In short, Blueprints is a terrifically ambitious book, and it's a welcome departure for Boudinot. Every story in his knockout debut collection, The Littlest Hitler, is a gem, a hermetically sealed universe with its own special rules and qualities. His debut novel, Misconceptions, began like that—the first chapter is another perfect little self-contained, burnished nub—but the rest of the book floundered, as though Boudinot had already accomplished what he had set out to say in the first sequence and was left to reexamine the laws of physics already clearly defined in the first 30 pages.
Unlike Misconceptions, Blueprints is undeniably a novel. And what a novel it is, creating three new ideas with a flourish on each page and then sending them spinning off into the ether to interact with each other, or maybe just disappear forever. Boudinot's meticulous linguistic craftsmanship is still on display—he may be the most delightfully sarcastic writer Seattle has ever produced—but rather than using those sentences to create something delicate in structure, he commands his language to expand ever outward, swallowing up the whole world and pondering the galaxy beyond. While the influences for this book run far and wide through Philip K. Dick country and old Godzilla movies—so far as I can tell, this is the purest example yet of Boudinot letting his sci-fi-nerd flag proudly fly—the two closest relatives to Blueprints in terms of size, content, and scope are David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System and, especially, Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas & Electric.
Everything in Blueprints doesn't quite land as smoothly as you'd like on the last page—these kinds of brainy big-idea novels almost never do—but the plot is almost beside the point here. We already know from his short fiction that Boudinot can do plot. What we weren't sure he could do was write a novel that would crack open our skulls, pour a whole universe inside, and leave us begging for more. Now we know. More, please.