February 15, 2007

(+++) TO BE OR…

Being. By Kevin Brooks. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

      The word “being” has different meanings as a verb form or a noun. As the former it means “existing.” As the latter, it means some sort of creature, as in the phrase “human being.” Kevin Brooks chooses his title well: it partakes of both the word’s meanings.

      Being is, more or less, a who-or-what-am-I story in the mode of such films as The Bourne Identity. The narrator tells another character, “My name’s Robert Smith. I’m sixteen years old. This morning I went into the hospital for an endoscopy. When I woke up, I was lying on my back in a strange room. I was blind and paralyzed. Conscious but unconscious. I was surrounded by men with guns. A man in a white coat cut my gut open and there were inhuman things inside me.” And there is the plot in a nutshell: Who or what is Robert Smith? And what is going on with and around him?

      Brooks, whose novels are always intense (Martyn Pig, Candy, The Road of the Dead and others), keeps the heat turned up high this time. The mystery of what’s inside Robert is solved, at least in part – by Robert himself – fairly early in the story, but then he takes off to learn the why for the rest of the book. “This was the real world. This was reality. This was Essex, England. This wasn’t a story. It wasn’t a fantasy, for God’s sake.” So Robert says, and so he wishes, but his discoveries argue that, at the very least, Essex is a lot stranger than he ever thought it was.

      Like other Brooks characters, Robert is a foster child, abandoned by his mother as an infant – or at least that is what he thinks he remembers. Brooks keeps Robert’s understanding of reality tantalizingly shifting, as he starts to question who everyone is. His quest to comprehend brings him to a woman named Eddi Ray, who turns out to be a petty criminal with some expertise in disguise, fake IDs and the like – very helpful for someone in Robert’s position, since a lot of people are looking for him (ostensibly on a trumped-up murder charge, but in reality, he senses, for something more sinister than mere murder). But because Eddi is a thief, and in fact picked up her set of clients by turning in her former boyfriend, Robert does not dare trust her…except that he must trust her, at least for the time being….

      Brooks does a top-notch job with the developing relationship between Robert and Eddi, and the confusions and eruptions of danger as Robert tries to figure out exactly what is going on and why. Unfortunately – and readers are likely to be quite disappointed when it happens – Brooks eventually begs the question, begs pretty much all the questions, by creating a conclusion that is fraught with his trademark violence but that ultimately resolves nothing at all. The buildup and pacing of the book are so effective that the final non-resolution is all the more disappointing. Fans of Brooks’ writing will be carried along by his usual headlong pace and clearly delineated characters. But in the end, Being proves to be less than it was capable of being.

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