Jonathan's Reviews > The Nervous System

The Nervous System by Nathan Larson
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's review
Jul 15, 2012

really liked it
Read from July 15 to 30, 2012

There’s nothing I love more than good Noir. Well, maybe sex. And of course, my wife and kid. And then pizza ranks pretty high up there, too… but whatever, you know what I’m saying. To me, Noir is the crème-de-la-crème of the mystery/crime genre. And whenever an author can combine Noir and some other genre I love into a devil’s brew of literary deliciosity, well then that’s just the cherry on top of my ice cream sunday.

That’s why I was so enthralled with Nathan Larson’s The Nervous System. It combines Noir and post-apocalyptic fiction with one of the most unique narrative voices I’ve ever seen in modern literature. It’s gritty and bleak and hilariously funny. And, well… why don’t I tell you a little bit about the plot, first? You’ll need some background to fully appreciate all the gushing I’m about to unleash, so let’s do that first.

The Nervous System (and all of the Dewey Decimal series, of which The Nervous System is book two of three) envisions a near-future post-Imperial America, an America well on the downward slide from its previous greatness. Congress has been disbanded, the constitution suspended, and martial law reigns. After multiple large-scale terrorist attacks, an influenza pandemic, several man-made ecological disasters, and the total collapse of Wall Street, New York City is a shadow of its former self. There’s also something referred to as “The 2/14 event,” which could refer to one or all of the aforementioned events. I came in on the 2nd book in the series, and it was never really explained in detail here. Maybe it is in the 1st book? I dunno. It doesn’t matter. Bottom line is that New York, NY is a broken-down shit hole with the military-industrial complex run amok—kind of like Iraq circa 2004. The decimated cityscape is occupied by foreign contractors, private military contractors, and even foreign military troops, all fighting over the ruins of a once-great society.

Enter Dewey Decimal (not his real name, of course), a neurotic, germophobic, amnesiac, OCD, African American veteran (try saying that five times fast) who has taken up residence in the main branch of the New York City Public Library. He lives his life according to the “System,” abiding by dictates such as not hurting women and children and only making left turns before 11 a.m. He also religiously lathers up with Purell™, wears latex gloves and a dust mask at all times, and wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but the best in designer duds. Rather than seeking out the truth of his past identity (a la Jason Bourne), Decimal is perfectly happy to let the past alone. The snippets that he does remember of his time in the military and his days spent in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “torture labs” (where they evidently pumped him up with chemicals, stuffed him with implants, and general took an eggbeater to his mind) are nightmare-inducing enough as it is. Instead he’d rather focus on his life’s work—reorganizing the library’s shelves according to his System—and leave the rest of the world to rot.

But it’s never as simple as all of that, is it? In the first installment, The Dewey Decimal System, Decimal plays bagman and enforcer for New York’s corrupt district attorney, who supplies him with his much-needed medication. In The Nervous System, the D.A. is dead and Decimal thinks he’s home free—that is, until a powerful U.S. Senator and his private army come knocking. The D.A. had some dirt on the senator, evidence indicating that, pre-2/14, the senator ordered the murder of his Korean prostitute/mistress and her unborn baby to rid himself of any political liabilities. And now that the D.A. is dead, the Senator believes that evidence has passed into Decimal hands. Mostly that’s because Decimal really does have the evidence, but he wasn’t planning on using it, so really, why all the fuss? At least, that’s how Decimal looks at it. Anyhow, the Senator’s corporate soldier boys occupy Decimal’s beloved library, and Decimal takes it about as well as if someone kidnapped his baby girl.

He can’t just give the Senator what he wants, though. The System dictates the protection of women and children, and letting a baby-killer waltz away with the evidence of his crime would mean bad mojo. Therefore, he takes it upon himself to investigate the murders, find out what really happened, and—if the Senator is guilty—burn that bastard to the ground. The resulting narrative is an almost mad-cap romp through a decimated New York City, from Korea Town to the Bronx to the shattered remains of the Brooklyn Bridge. Even as the body count rises, still Decimal tries to do the right thing, to respect the sanctity of life and spare what’s left of his battered karma. But in the process, he uncovers specters of his past that cannot be denied.

Despite all the cool stuff going on in the setting and the plot, probably the coolest thing about the entire experience was Larson’s narrative voice. The novel is told in the first person by Decimal himself. It’s mostly clipped phrases and sentence fragments filled to the brim with self-deprecating humor, profanity, and ghetto slang. The style is a lot like James Ellroy if you blunted the razor’s edge with a nihilistic funny bone. Oh yeah, and it’s told in present tense, which is kind of a rarity in Noir. But instead of taking my word for it, read an excerpt and see for yourself.

“No big wonder my skeez is wrecked: I high-fived a fast-moving military chopper. Perhaps not the slickest plan; but I got results, did I not? I’m unconcerned. Dr. Feelgood will prop me up. Point a gun just fine with my left hand.”

So imagine that plus a shit-ton of cursing for 281 pages. Larson’s style is pure brilliance. He also toys with a kind of side-slipping narrative, using flashbacks to illustrate Decimal’s fragmented memory. Oh, and then there’s the opening prologue (or whatever it is—there are no chapter titles) that is pretty much one long run-on sentence. Though, the most innovative thing I saw through the whole thing happened when Decimal literally forgot where he was and why he was there, flipped out, and had to mentally retrace his steps to figure out what was going on. I know, sounds kind of surreal, but it works. Trust me.

Larson also incorporates a lot of thematic components that I loved.

• The military industrial complex spinning out of control and by proxy precipitating the downfall of the American military in favor of private security firms.
• The “blow it up, build it back” mentality we’ve used in other countries being visited upon us.
• The loss of personal liberty and suspension of the democratic process in the name of “security.”
• The effects of psychological and biological tinkering on the human psyche.
• The effective downfall of a post-Imperial America.

It’s all fun stuff to explore through fiction. Deep, too. Best of all, though, is a theme that has been a staple of Noir for a long time—the broken man seeking redemption. Decimal tries to atone for his past sins by doing the right thing even though it’s against his best interests. He justifies it as being part of “the System,” but it is in effect an attempt to absolve himself of his half-remembered crimes. But as hard as he tries, he simply cannot. His attempts at redemption are about as effective as trying to wrestle a cloud to the ground. Just as he thinks he’s getting somewhere, it all turns to vapor and he’s left empty-handed. That’s Dewey Decimal, and that’s why—unlike a lot of stuff being called Noir these days—The Nervous System is actually Noir.

That being said, there are a few things about The Nervous System that some people might construe as negatives. None of them impacted my enjoyment of the book, though. For instance, the mystery is a little on the light side. Decimal doesn’t do that much actual investigating, and the little that he does do is far outweighed by the run-n-gun action. I happen to like run-n-gun action, though, so I didn’t mind. And the narrative is a bit disjointed at times, but that’s O.K. The story is told from Decimal’s POV, and he’s nuckin’ futs, so of course it’s going to be a bit disjointed. It’s just that some people may not be able to appreciate that kind of narrative.

When it came to rating The Nervous System, I was torn. At first I thought four stars would be appropriate, but then I started writing this review, really thinking about the book, and now four stars doesn’t seem to do it justice. But by the same token, it just doesn’t feel like a five-star book. If you asked me what would have bought The Nervous System extra star, though, I honestly couldn’t tell you. Maybe if the investigation had been a little more involved? I don’t know. But whatever--I’m going with my gut, and my gut is telling me to split the difference. That’s why I give The Nervous System four and a half out of five stars.

And—at the risk of ending on a pun—that ain’t half bad.
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message 4: by Cathleen (new)

Cathleen Sounds amazing. I really enjoyed your review.

Jonathan Cathleen wrote: "Sounds amazing. I really enjoyed your review."

Thanks, Cathleen. And thanks, also, for putting up with the rampant italics that was there before. I messed up on some of my HTML tags, but it's fixed now. ;)

message 2: by Cathleen (new)

Cathleen Jonathan wrote: "Cathleen wrote: "Sounds amazing. I really enjoyed your review."

Thanks, Cathleen. And thanks, also, for putting up with the rampant italics that was there before. I messed up on some of my HTML ..."

I was enjoying reading your review so much, I hadn't even noticed.

Ms.pegasus Your exuberant writing does justice to the book. DO read the first in the series. I thought it was the better of the two, but that's just me.

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