Imagine a trip abroad where they don’t speak your language, the climate and smells are all different, the rapid pace makes you believe everyone must be on methamphetamines, and all the while you see clear yet seemingly out of place influences from the good old USA. You’ve got your guidebook in hand, but for all the help it is once you step out of the airport you should throw it away.
“You like this car? You like it?” She was shrieking like a shoutygirl-presenter. João-Batista looking pityingly at her. On the car cams the boys looked as if a bomb had gone off under their Knight Rider LEDS. Don’t bail, Lady Lady Lady, don’t bail. “It’s yours! It’s your big star prize. It’s all right, you’re on a TV game show!”
McDonald drops us into a Brazil where the reader is the tourist in a foreign land, McDonald the ex-pat guide fully immersed in local culture, and it’s a constant struggle at first to keep track of what’s going on.
Brasyl begins in Rio in the year 2006, following a morally ambiguous producer of reality-shock TV setting the stage for her next show. Immediately thrown into a high-octane police chase full of the sights, sounds, and lingua franca of Brazil, the reader is left trying to catch up and make sense what exactly is happening. I imagine this approach is designed to grab hold of the reader with an immediacy they are not prepared for, however, this early disorientation made it harder for me to connect and involve myself in the story. The glossary thoughtfully provided by McDonald offers some reprieve, but breaking the carefully constructed rhythm of the prose looses much of its effectiveness.
Each of the three ultimately inter-related story arcs and their main characters embody the time-line they come from and McDonald’s view of the world as it was, is, and could be. The first arc introduces us to Marcelina Hoffman, trashy television producer. McDonald utilizes Hoffman and her pop-culture ties to orientate the reader to Brazil. Her up-to-the-minute fashion sense and stratospheric ambition form a shallow shell around a confidently clueless core as we see Brazil through her distinctive point of view. Marcelina slowly realizes who she is and what she truly desires in life as she is literally confronted with herself.
In the second arc we jump ahead to a mid-21st Century Brazil and the fringes of an Orwellian society. Here we follow Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, the sixth son of a sixth son, a semi-legit businessman of the slums of São Paulo who becomes enthralled by Fia, a black-market quantum physicist pawning her skills to crack quantum tracking devices in stolen goods. Edson struggles with his identity and sexuality as he cons his way through life as his world overlaps with others, his puppy-love for Fia at the heart it all.
The third arc takes us back in time to 18th Century Brazil where Father Luis Quinn, a Jesuit priest, embarks on a journey to the dark heart of the Amazon to confront a renegade Jesuit missionary. Father Luis is accompanied by the French intellectual and spy, Robert Falcon, a friend and foe. Both are brilliant, introspective, hard and dangerous men with the best of intentions of this dark past.
Brasyl is the first novel by McDonald I have read as the oft-compared River of Gods languishes in The Stack of books to read. McDonald has earned a reputation for his stylistic prose, and he certainly justifies it. Brasyl is a stylistic tour de force where the techno-punk soul of quantum physics permeates his multidimensional Brazil. The emotional response invoked in this American was as otherworldly as any SFF book set in its own created world.
McDonald carefully styles the look and feel of each story arc with a rhythm not often found in SFF writing. It’s almost a beat you could dance to (you, not me) that changes from arc to arc. This rousing Latin beat begs a soundtrack and McDonald happily obliges with a set list provided at the back of the book. The beat of 2006 is fast and reckless with the occasional moderation of elderly, more sedate characters.
Gunga spoke the rhythm, the bass chug, the pulse of the city and the mountain. Médio was the chatterer, the loose and cheeky gossip of the street and the bar, the celebrity news. Violinha was the singer, high over bass and rhythm, hymn over all, dropping onto the rhythm of gunga and médio then cartwheeling away, like the spirit of capoeira itself, into rhythmic flights and plays, feints and improvisations, shaking its ass all over the place.
The beat of the future has the same fast and reckless feel of 2006 with an added bi-polar identity crisis and at times, extreme paranoia.
The loading ramp extends, lowers. Steel hits road. Sparks shower around the brothers Oliveira. Black Metal beckons them again: Come on, come on, on the ramp. Sparks peel away round Edson as he lines up the run. He’s a businessman, not a stunt-rider. Edson edges forward: the concentration pill gives him micro-accelerations and relative velocities. Wheel on wheel off wheel on wheel off, wheel on; then Edson throttles hard, surges forward, and brakes and declutches simultaneously.
The 18th Century slows down to a more traditional and introspective classical dance of events while keeping the feel that Brazil is not like any other place.
Luis Quinn sipped his coffee, rapidly achieving equilibrium with the general environment. An unrelenting climate; no release in the dark of the night. A cigar would be a fine thing. After months of enforced chastity aboard Cristo Redentor, he found his appetite for smoke had returned redoubled. The beginning of attachment, of indiscipline?
While stylistically superb, Brasyl falls short with a lack of resolution of its plot. The 18th Century story arc of Father Luis concludes well, while the other two offer more ambiguous conclusions. Ambiguous conclusions often add strength and the feeling of the right kind of completeness to a plot, and if each of the three story arcs existed independently, this would be the case. The problem arises with the inter-relation of the three arcs and their eventual convergence. At the point of convergence the plot just ends, leaving over-arching questions about the nature of quantum universes, human existence, and the mysterious factions in conflict unanswered. Early ascertains for award recognition may be justified, but for me, Brasyl falls flat at precisely the time it should and could have blown my mind.
Brasyl reflects the high-on-meth, ambitious, and paranoid times suffering an identity crisis emerging in the world around us and infuses it with the Latin beat of the Brazilian melting pot. It’s a view of our world and its possible future directions as reflected in a seemingly warped mirror. Brasyl is a good book, but for me it failed to reach its full potential as a great book, an important book. Even so, dust off the thrown-out guidebook and read Brasyl, but don’t don’t don’t lick the frog.