I enjoyed Warren Ellis’s Normal, read as a series of four two-dollar ebooks. Something like modern Lovecraft without the literal monsters: the protagonist and most of the other characters reside in a sanitarium for professional futurists who have contracted a condition known as “abyss gaze”, presented as an inevitable consequence of deeply understanding the fragility of human civilization.
Soon after the main character’s arrival at the facility, he stumbles into a locked-room mystery, and solving it accidentally falls to him. Not a long book, Normal follows the hero through a single lap of the hospital campus, meeting a variety of his fellow mind-broken futurists, before the plot proceeds directly to its conclusion. All the patients have convinced themselves the world is doomed, but each holds an extreme and mutually incompatible reason as to why. I found a kind of satisfyingly backhanded optimism there.
I learned about this book via an excerpt included within Ellis’s highly enjoyable email dispatches, which I have received every Sunday for some time. In fact, before I read this novel, my familiarity with Ellis was — I almost wrote “limited to” his Twitter presence, his blog, his newsletters, and his ambient music podcast. But that doesn’t sound very limited at all. I know that I have at least one friend who counts himself an Ellis fan based entirely on the authors’ copious oeuvre of free and self-published supplemental work, finding his longer-form prose ultimately disappointing.
The friend in question shared this opinion after I tweeted that I’d started Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein, his debut novel — and, again, a rather short one — from the previous decade. I’ve owned an unread printed copy of it for nearly that long, and found it closest to hand when Normal left me hungry for more.
I’d summarize it as The year is 2007, and Warren Ellis has been reading a lot of Boing Boing. I let myself take pleasure in reliving the angry-anxious late-Dubya-era online zeitgeist through the story’s color-smeared lens. If I found myself questioning the main character’s undeniable resemblance to Spider Jerusalem, or the unapologetic manic-pixiness of his dream-girl sidekick, the fact I’d already read a quarter of the novel by that point encouraged me to just motor through the rest. It didn’t change me much, but it did invite me to reflect on the recent past unexpectedly, and I liked it.