Book Review: CARBON by Andrew Vachss

Carbon by [Andrew Vachss]

Cyberpunk. Fantasy. Noir. Blend them together and you get Carbon.

Late noir grandmaster Andrew Vachss wrote his Burke novels to expose the horrific reality of child abuse in America. With Carbon, he opened a new front in his crusade against abusers and predators, stepping into the world of science fiction and fantasy.

Carbon begins with a mystery. When a prostitute is found murdered in the City, the authorities turn to the titular Carbon, a private investigator / mercenary with a shady past. While his contract is to find the killer, his true search is to recover a stash of money—and with it, buy a chance to live in the City.

Delivered in a lean, gritty tone, the prose delivers just enough detail to keep the plot moving at a blistering pace. The true depth of the story lies in what is not said, in what is implied, in the hidden hearts of the characters and the gap between their words and deeds. Reading it requires effort, but the story rewards those who stick with it.

The Setting

The world of Carbon is divided into three distinct areas: the City, the Sector and the Pure Zone. Each area runs by its own rules, with its own distinct aesthetics and culture.

The blurb says that in the City, the government is God. Carbon doesn’t spend much time in the City and doesn’t delve deeply into why he wants to live there, but compared to the lawlessness of the Sector and the Pure Zone, the City is a comparative paradise. While there is still crime and dirty politics in the City, it has one thing going for it: the Membrane. The barrier that keeps the magic of the outside world from leaking into the City. The City represents law and order, an oasis of stability in a universe where a single word can plunge your world into chaos.

In the Sector, there is no government. The only law is the law of the jungle. Gangs and heavy hitters are the minor rulers of this realm, their domains limited by their reach. While magic permeates the Sector, the Sector is implied to be heavily urbanized, not unlike an urban ghetto. An uneasy mix of tech and magic pervades the Sector, lending it a gritty cyberpunk fantasy feel.

Past the Sector is the Pure Zone. Here we enter the realm of pure fantasy. Spirits anchor themselves to the land. Magic runs rampant, where the weirdest and most powerful magical effects can be seen. Fantastic animals call the Pure Zone home—and so too do animals wearing the skins of humans. Little tech is in evidence here, mostly confined to the Cargo Cars that ply the routes between the Sector and the Pure Zone. Here, also, is home to the darkest excesses of man.

The location of the City isn’t explicitly described. The story makes references to real-world countries, but not the nation that is the host of the City. Everyone speaks in American, but whether America still exists as a political entity is left vague. The highest authority as far as the characters are concerned is the government of the City.

Pulp writers of the previous era describe their settings in lavish detail with rich language and historical allusions. Vachss does the opposite, with his brief, even minimalistic descriptions. Both approach have the same effect: they elevate the world from merely extraordinary to mythic.

The City can be Anywhere, America. Think of a metropolis and there it is, the embodiment of the will of man imposed on the world. The Sector is the concrete hellhole festering at the city’s edges. It is a cyberpunk slum of tech and danger, where life is cheap and power is everything, order and chaos balanced on a knife’s edge. The Pure Zone is an otherworldly location, so far beyond urban norms that even the protagonist has few words to properly capture it. It might be the Land of Faerie—and, like the Fae, the humans who live here are deceptive and dangerous.

Every subculture has its rules, and in the world of Carbon, this is made apparent. The City has its own rules and etiquette. The gangs, peddlers and heavy hitters of the Sector have their own codes and argot. Even in the Pure Zone, where are no formal rulers, there are still rules everyone abides by—and breaks at their own peril. Carbon operates seamlessly in all three regions, exposing the essence of each.

The world of Carbon is an exceedingly dangerous place. Truth is a closely guarded commodity, and liars are everywhere. The penalty for deception is swift and deadly, yet the only prize for honesty is a brutal death. Everyone has an agenda, everyone wants something, everyone is willing to do everything it takes to get it.

Yet in danger lies wonder.

The Magic

In the City and the Sector, high technology is evident. There are references to machines, computers, even an Internet—and tech even stranger and weirder still. This being a fantasy story, though, the main draw is the magic.

Modern authors dream up of elaborate magic systems, or try to force RPG mechanics into magic. Vachss draws from a different approach, a much older approach, one that harkens to the pulp era, and claims lineage from ancient myths and legends.

The magic is left mostly unexplained. The mystery is preserved throughout the book, leaving a powerful impression that lingers long after the story is complete. What Carbon will reveal is that magic is expressed through the power of speech. But only occasionally does he show you what the spell word actually does—usually with deadly results.

This magic system is reminiscent of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Unlike Vance’s characters, however, there are no known limits on the use of magic, save for the fact that magic does not work in the City. This makes every non-friendly dialogue laden with tension. In the Sector and in the Zone, when a single word is all it takes to end a life, everyone watches their words extremely carefully.

Words are power in this world, and conversations are laden with a poetic power that would be entirely at home in an epic fantasy tale—and, simultaneously, a crime noir novel.

The Action

Carbon is filled with violence. A violent world demands a violent lifestyle. But there is only one fight scene.

When others authors write fight scenes, they stuff the scenes with lots of detail and back-and-forth. While there may be merit to this, Vachss takes a vastly different approach.

A fight implies an exchange of blows. At the highest levels of violence, you do not exchange blows.

You do not give the enemy time and space to harm you and yours. You overwhelm him and destroy him, ideally before he even knows what hits him. He doesn’t even realize his life is in danger until he is lying on the ground, bleeding out from fatal wounds.

This is not the logic of a combat athlete or a street fighter. It is the mindset of an assassin, and an assassin is exactly what Carbon truly is.

Predators are everywhere in the story universe. In a world where words hold power over life and death, a lie is a signal of fatal intent, and is treated no differently from attempted murder. Carbon carves his way through a small army of human predators in the story, but every kill is described in a cold, flat, affect, often as one-liners. This tells you a lot about Carbon: he is a scarred, damaged man who has become so inured to killing that he makes it sound routine.

Violence in the real world is extremely dangerous, and Vachss carries this sensibility into the novel. Carbon only has one true fight scene, and he straight-up states he was laid up for months after that. He embodies the mindset of the predator, operating by blitz, ambush and deception, doing unto other predators before they can do unto him. And why not? In a world where a single word can kill, there is no margin for error. There is no penalty for paranoia, and misplaced mercy will be rewarded only with the silence of the grave. Under these circumstances, how else can a noir protagonist act?

Carbon is the epitome of the antihero. A bad man capable of doing terrible things—but he visits them only on worse people.

The Plot

There isn’t one.

Or, more precisely, there isn’t a conventional plot.

Carbon is a nontraditional novel written in the first person. The plot is a thin thread that demands careful reading to follow, interspaced with recollections from Carbon’s life. Most of the story is a collection of barely-connected snapshots and vignettes, forcing the reader to pay attention to events and characters. The plot is not signposted for you. Characters rarely signal what they will do next, who they will talk to, how they will make something happen, or why they do anything. The story is best read slowly, to absorb every detail, and to work through the implications.

Carbon’s investigation into the murder spans probably only 10 percent of the book. The remaining 90 percent is centred on his own quest to find the money he needs to begin a new life in the City. Only at the ending do you finally see how his adventures in the Sector and the Pure Zone tie into the work he was contracted to perform in the City.

The heart of the story occurs in the Pure Zone. There, he encounters a nameless girl, exploited by a gang of predators. He rescues her, then bonds with her and teaches her the power of words. Her simple innocence shines brightly in this world of darkness and deceit—making the revelation of her wounds all the more heartbreaking when she finally discloses them.

In protecting her from the horrors of the world, Carbon earns a semblance of redemption—and a chance to become more than just a hired killer.

The Verdict

Cyberpunk. Fantasy. Noir. Call it what you like, but beneath the trappings of genre, Carbon is a crime novel that exposes the worst of human evil. Genre tropes are deployed with great care and attention to detail, reinforcing the themes of the story and fleshing out the characters. The sparse prose and cryptic storytelling spurs the reader to make his own connections, to see what is not said, to discover the wonder and the danger that lurks in the mythic storyscape.

Carbon is a genre-busting masterpiece from a grandmaster of the art. Get it on Amazon here.

Book Review: CARBON by Andrew Vachss
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