Wednesday, August 4, 2010

[Novel Review] Repo Men

Formerly The Reposession Mambo by Eric Garcia

This was recently a big-deal movie starring Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber that... actually didn't do all that great in the theaters. Which is a shame, because the marketing campaign for it was really awesome and had me super-psyched to see it. I still haven't seen it, but as I was kicking around the Internet I saw time and again that the novel the movie was based on - originally titled "The Repossession Mambo" was really good, so I picked it up and read it.

And boy was it! It's a really unique and very interesting book, particularly because of the non-linear way Garcia writes it. The basic premise is that in the not-terribly-distant future artificial organs (called "artiforgs" in the novel) have been raised to a high art form. They're sleek, powerful, incredibly easy to install (there was never any mention of rejection, infection or complications from even the most extreme organ replacements), and not only do they work better than the originals, they can have added features. For instance, your artificial liver could also be a music-player, and your eye could give you night-vision or just display your calendar.

Where the setting gets sinister is that the artiforgs are incredibly expensive and the loans necessary to procure one are offered at prohibitively high rates of interest - upwards of 30-40%. As a result, defaults are not only common, they're expected as people drive themselves to financial ruin in order to afford their life-giving organs. Once they fail to make their payments, the contract states that the organs can be reclaimed - brutally, with death as the certain result. Hence the name of the movie - Repo Men.

The novel (and the movie, of course) tells the story of one of these Repo men. He's one of the best, too - a cold-hearted professional who goes through his targets with literally surgical precision, reclaiming the valuable organs so they can be refurbished and re-sold. He also goes through wives at an alarming rate - he's really alone in his life, except for his job and his best friend. A friend who is, of course, his partner in reclaiming artiforgs.

Garcia's storytelling technique in Repo Men is fascinating and not one I'd want to see very often. Instead of telling the tale of Remy growing from a youth to a soldier and then to a repo man, he jumps around, back and forth and all over Remy's fragmented life. The guy's really a mess - he loves nothing, he's got no life outside his job, and he can't connect with anyone outside that job. All of that becomes a major problem for him when his own heart is damaged during a repossession and, naturally, he defaults on the outrageous payments and has to go on the run from his own people.

As a sci-fi nut, the technology is often the most interesting part of a story like this, but it's really not what Garcia was writing about. The whole focus of his novel began with the notion of repossession and the question of what happens when the item being repossessed isn't just a car or some furniture, but it's an integral, life-sustaining part of you. He then wraps around that premise the life of a man that's as empty and meaningless and ultimately destructive as those very artiforgs he works with. In the novel, there are people who need their artiforgs because of loss to accident or disease, but Garcia doesn't focus on them. Instead, most of Remy's victims bought their high-end organs because they were upgrades to their natural flesh or because they were unable to control their drinking or their weight and so destroyed their original organs through self-abuse. His point, I think, was that these people were as artificial as their new organs, and didn't really deserve to have them. I mean, how crazy would you have to be to have surgery to replace a perfectly functional, natural organ with an upgrade when the risk is that it will drain your finances and result with your organ being ripped from your body on your livingroom floor?

For me, the premise was in several ways as artificial as the organs. For starters, it seems to me much more plausible that cloned or otherwise "grown" organs will become commonplace well before high-tech metal monstrosities like those in the book. In addition, the legions of sheep going to the slaughter seems preposterous to me - I can buy the notion that the government could be "bought" by the powerful and wealthy artiforg manufacturer's lobby into passing laws allowing for usurious interest rates and contracts resulting in guaranteed death upon default. And I can also buy the notion of a society where the quest for artificially-enhanced and extended life would inure people to the consequences. But I couldn't buy them both together for whatever reason, and it just struck me as implausible that western society would blithely accept both financial ruin and rampant executions in the name of artificially-enhanced organs and longevity.

Still, watching Remy grow into a heartless professional and then seeing him finally try to grow into a person once that hard heart of his was replaced with an artificial one was an entertaining, even gripping read. As I said above, I wouldn't want to read very many novels that jump around the way this one did, but it fit the nature of the protagonist's existence even as it fit with the "mambo" style of dance in the original title - shifting back and forth, back and forth, ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump. Like a heartbeat.

Repo Men was a good, solid and entertaining read that touched on issues of human emotion, the need for a meaningful life beyond your job, the fragility of the human form, and the struggle to maintain one's humanity in an increasingly harsh and brutal world. I enjoyed reading it and rate it a B.

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