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The Unnoticeables
by Robert Brockway
Tor, $24.99, 288pp
Published: July 2015

I'm of two very distinct minds about 'The Unnoticeables' and neither one has quite won out over the other yet.

On one hand, I devoured the book in a single session, during a long bath. That has to say something, right? It runs to almost three hundred pages, but it's a quick and lively read, with a snazzy writing style, some very odd characters and an engaging mystery.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that there's anything of real substance here at all. While I certainly enjoyed the ride, I'm unsure as to where it took me and where I ended up. It felt more like a magic trick than a novel, one that caught me up in its misdirection, generated a lot of flash but ended up with me back in the same seat I started in.

The two pages that comprise chapter one are a microcosm of the book as a whole. They start with memorable opening words: 'I met my guardian angel today,' says an unnamed narrator. 'She shot me in the face.' They open up an intriguing train of thought, that the universe and all the people in it are mathematical problems and that they can be solved into something simpler, that there are creatures whose job it is to find those solutions and that the feeling of being solved is a strange one indeed. It sets into fast-paced motion the mystery that the two lead characters each have to face and...

And that's about it. I felt drawn into this wild and crazy idea after that first chapter, but didn't feel that I knew much more by the time I finished the last one. When I finally put down the book, I wondered if it was the product of the sort of recreational substances that Carey, the punk in 1970s New York who we follow throughout, enjoyed for fun. I also wondered if it would make more sense if I'd done them all too.

Carey is a strong character, a young man surely drawn from the dubious but entertaining past of writer Robert Brockway, now a senior editor and columnist at Cracked.com. He certainly lives the life, which revolves almost entirely around drinking beer, getting laid and starting fights, with listening to bands as an occasional interruption. However, he's a step above most of the other punks around him because he isn't entirely selfish and thoughtless; he proves that when the tar men melt Debbie, one of his friends, and he fights the unlikely creature with a beer can and a cigarette lighter. Perhaps that's why he's our focus.

Well, he's the focus for half the chapters because Brockway alternates between two separate battles: Carey's in the New York of 1977 and Kaitlyn's in the Hollywood of 2013. They're separate for half the book, before a much older Carey arrives in the second story too, now a homeless, but still very much alive, alcoholic.

That says a lot for his staying power, because his is clearly not an easy fight. The punks, juvenile transients one and all, are easy prey for the monsters in this book, and many of them have already been taken by the time we meet Carey. There are the grotesque tar men, which are exactly what they sound like but with metal gears for eyes, and the Unnoticeables, which are gorgeous creatures that we see only in our peripheral vision. The text suggests that they're angels; the back cover blurb says that they're demons too because they're the same thing. They come out of nowhere, steal our attention and take us away, never to be seen again. In the New York punk world, people vanish all the time.

Naturally, there's social commentary here; but surprisingly little of it. Brockman paints the New York punk scene of the seventies magnificently, showing us effortlessly what it was like to be part of that picture, through a memorable set of characters, most of which have descriptions for names, like Safety Pins, Elmer Spikes and Thing 1 and Thing 2. Brockman's vibrant prose aches to be read aloud, like all the best punk poetry, and it doesn't feel educational in the slightest but does a fantastic job nonetheless of exploring the social strata within this scene. He does less well at extending that to the place of the punks in society at large. For the most part, nobody understands and it's left at that.

There's more social commentary in Kaitlyn's half of the book, but it's cheap and obvious. She's a waitress in Los Angeles, the city of Angels being a telling nickname here, but she'd describe herself as a stuntwoman. She merely doesn't get work enough to pay her bills, so waits tables and tends bar to get through the gaps between gigs. She had encountered an angel years earlier when one took her sister, but the monsters who take over her life in Hollywood are the Empty Ones, hollowed out shells of celebrities who live only to network. It's not particularly deep to highlight how shallow the movie industry is and Brockman settles for merely translating it into another memorable set of monsters to pit against his new protagonist.

Kaitlyn's Hollywood isn't as well-drawn as Carey's New York, possibly because Carey is part of a well-defined scene while Kaitlyn is almost entirely self-contained, her missing friend apparently the only real person in her life. This, along with Carey's unsurprising introduction into her world, helps to make it his book rather than hers. As the chapters alternate between these two leads, we quickly find ourselves reading this as Carey vs the Mostly Invisible Monsters and wondering how Kaitlyn is going to join the fray. What we get is a pair of battles that run in parallel until Carey becomes a player in both of them to start the journey towards a mutual ending.

And with all that said, I'm struggling to figure out whether this is a book I'd recommend or not. It was an enjoyable read but an ultimately unfulfilling one. I like Brockway's prose and I would happily pick up another of his books but part of that would be to see if it ends up somewhere more substantial than this one. The words here are often good ones but they're put together in such a way that the writing is more important than the story.

In the end, I believe I'd recommend this more as a drama to people with a history in the punk scene than a quirky sci-fi yarn. Perhaps Brockway should have written this book more as an actual memoir than as a novel. I wouldn't care if it was a non-fiction account or a fictionalised impression, but that's where the substance is here.

There is another engaging page at the beginning of this book and it's the dedication. It reads: 'To everybody who told me I was wasting my teenage years by drinking, going to punk shows, and reading comic books: Thank you for being so hilariously wrong.' I'd love to read the book behind that dedication, but this is sadly only a teaser for it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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