active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Don’t look: balancing artifice and disgust

My novel Residuum explores an uncomfortable paradox. It concerns a humanity that has had every last shred of artifice stripped away, and somehow has to manage to survive in a world of naked self-disgust. At the same time, I hate all these lies we tell ourselves.

In Japan, people play a deep-rooted game of artifice. Much of the country’s urban and rural landscape is blighted, whether it’s by the tangle of overhead wires in the cities, the concrete slope reinforcements that scar hillsides, or utilitarian breakwaters that line the beaches.

A foreigner is only too aware of these imperfections. We can’t believe a country so beautiful can be so wantonly degraded. The Japanese pretend they don’t see them.

If you point them out to a Japanese person, they’ll shrug and say what I consider to be the most obnoxious word in the world: “Shoganai.” Well, what can you do? Overhead wires make sense in a country prone to earthquakes. Slope reinforcements guard against land slips. And surely we need some protection against tsunamis?

You just have to learn to look beyond the ugliness. To block it from your mind. But that attitude is crazy. If you simply close your eyes to problems, you let those problems continue.

Does it matter if the entire country becomes a blighted wasteland, so long as one flowering cherry tree remains? So long as one branch of the last withered tree still has a blossom on it? So long as you still have a petal preserved in a block of clear plastic?

Shoganai is a word that should be challenged, every time it is spoken. And yet in Japan, the word itself closes the debate.

I don’t want to single out the Japanese here. Artifice is at the heart of all human society. We all pretend we don’t see the truth. Most of us tell ourselves elaborate fairy tales to shelter ourselves from reality, as I explored in my previous post Love the trap you’re in.

Death is, of course, the worst of all our unpleasant realities. Our biggest stories are wrapped around it.

Growing up in a rural community, I never had any preconceptions about life and death. But while you’re munching the undifferentiated matter in your hamburger, do you really know what goes on in a slaughterhouse? Many of us have probably never even handled raw meat with our bare hands, let alone gutted a fish.

In almost everything I’ve written, I’ve worked in the messy area just beyond where our contracting squeamishness has cornered us: the idea that as we sanitize our lives, we lose touch with our own biological essence. Our food comes packaged. Our waste is removed at the press of a button. Even pubic hair is now disgusting and girls who don’t shave it are unclean.

When I was seven years old, I found a pamphlet on childbirth options my mother had left next to her bed. The photo in its center spread showed a baby’s head just nudging out of the birth canal. I think I still believed in Santa Claus at the time.

The revelation certainly didn’t affect my emotional development, color my love for the girls and women in my life, or taint my excitement and wonder at the gradually unfolding mysteries of sex.

I think it’s healthy to be pragmatic about our biology. I can’t see where it’s dirty or needs to be hidden.

And surely a young person equipped with knowledge is a young person empowered? The idea that innocence is beneficial to kids only works if there are not predators around to take advantage of that innocence.

But those who advocate telling ourselves stories point to the opposite side of the paradox. If there are no stories, they say, we cheapen ourselves. If we strip away the concepts of a beneficent god to look after us, and everlasting life to reward us, our lives have no meaning. We’re just animals scrabbling in the filth.

Why bother with decency and society, if that’s all we are?

Residuum delves past the surface of this argument to have a peek out the other side. What would humanity be like, I asked myself, if you’d already gone down about as far as a godless human can go? (It’s a subject I returned to in my story A Thousand Years Of Nanking.)

What if, for example, you’d never seen a woman, and all you knew of the female body is what you’d learned from photos of diseased flesh in a medical textbook?

It was a purposefully disagreeable concept, which I executed in a purposefully disagreeable way. Residuum is full of queasy invented terms (like vulm, puun, and yysch). It is entirely composed of shades of red. Its characters are naked and horribly deformed. They survive only by taking drugs, which are debilitating in themselves, leading to psychosis and suicide. It talks about eugenics and medical experiments. Everything takes place in the bowels of a corpse. And let’s not mention the toilets.

In Residuum, I ventured as far out of the sanitized corner as I could. It’s ugly, extreme, repellent, and unremittingly grim. I wanted the whole thing, from the title onwards, to be akin to that sensation when your stomach keeps convulsing but you’re empty of anything left to vomit.

That’s hardly the standard thriller paradigm – even for edgy horror crossovers. If Ridley Scott’s Alien was a blue collar workplace in space, Residuum was a seedy urinal, with something unpleasant oozing down the walls and puddles on the floor.

There was a Giger influence for sure, but it was more the Giger of his Passage sequence (which is, incidentally, partly about birth trauma) than of his more familiar glossy biomechanical constructs.

Though the novel was rationalized in terms of nuts-and-bolts physics and biology, it lay against a background of extreme human emotions. There’s sex in Residuum, though of a distorted kind, and religion, and even science, but mainly there’s the self-disgust of humans who realize they’ve reached moral rock bottom and there’s nothing left to lose.

But then, Residuum isn’t actually about these things at all. It’s about how you find a means to survive once the artifice has gone. The true focus of Residuum is the bond of friendship that exists between my three main characters: Peter Hauer, John Becker and Alex Laing.

These men are weary veterans of a war started long before their births. Their lives are hard, and utterly without reprieve. If they are to continue existing at all, they must do it in a world of unceasing horror.

When a woman, Nomi, is thrown into this pit of hell, she’s merely the mirror they’ve always refused to look into, for fear that the reflection will repulse them as much as it repulses us, the outsiders peering in at them like specimens in a glass tube.

The more I wrote this novel, the more emotionally attached I became to these three people. Before long, this sense of connection had become a desperate grasping at salvation for them, knowing this was impossible – the plot would not allow it. All three characters try frantically to find decency in the cesspit they inhabit, as indeed do all thinking persons who have stepped outside the comforting fictions of society and cling desperately to their own moral core.

Stories don’t make us human. We’re not special because we lie. We’re special if we reject the lies, but still find the humanity to be a loving, caring, inclusive society.

And here’s the nub of the paradox. Those comforting lies have kept us so morally and intellectually retarded that we don’t even know if we can.

Still, if we can’t be adults, at least we can be children. Forever. And keep our eyes shut.


Residuum is available to buy at Amazon.


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