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Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, Jim Munroe, Harper Flamingo, 1998, 248 pp.
By any strict definition, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask is not science fiction. But if any book could make the case for throwing most definitions out the window, this is it. Jim Munroe's debut novel is assured, funny, and more than a little deranged (in the best possible sense of the word of course). Munroe's sensibility as an author might include such buzzwords as anarchic and anti-authoritarian -- this carries through to the narrative, so genre definitions get unravelled like many a laughingstock in the book. Fortunately, Munroe is too canny for kneejerk reactions, and most of the targets deserve the heaps of scorn they receive.
The first line of the back cover blurb of Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask gives away one of the main premises of the book: "Ryan, a shy, caffeine-addicted university student, can turn into a fly." The book itself leads gently into the topic, and Ryan reveals it at an important moment. Most of the book is a love story actually; as the back cover blurb also informs us: "Cassandra, a waitress at a greasy spoon, can make things disappear." Ryan and Cassandra meet, fall in love, and discover their mutual powers. They decide to do something with their abilities, something that will make the world a better place. This kind of plot is a little hoary at this late date, but Munroe polishes it into an absorbing story. Ryan and Cassandra are well aware of the cultural nexus in which they operate; not necessarily that the practicalities line up precisely with reality, more that they do not make their intellectual and emotional choices in a vacuum. To make a somewhat non-useful comparison, Munroe can assemble something profound out of the detritus and trivia of modern life much like Coupland.
Munroe's characters... well, you love 'em or you hate 'em. One of the most prevalent traits of Ryan and his friends is a continuous, almost subliminal sarcastic byplay. The people in Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask remind me of nothing so much as the fools and lowbrow characters in a Shakespearean play -- less obsessed with puns in this case, but possessed of the same fascination with the way that words (and humour) can work counter to the dominant narratives of society. Sometimes the snide banter was uproariously funny, as with the running gag about bananas that Munroe uses to cap the book off in style. At other times, the sarcasm felt like a poor substitute for character development, and perhaps a bit much to be humorous. The book has a headlong flow, often eliding important sequences, which works against it because it's best taken in smaller doses.
I confess to being somewhat disappointed with the ending of the book, although I can see Munroe's possible intent. Spoiler warning! Ryan and Cassandra are busy fighting evil, and then Ryan discovers, quite accidentally, that a fly researcher he is working for is actually a child molester. Ryan tells Cassandra, and Cassandra makes the researcher disappear. At around the same time, Ryan's mother dies, and the combination of events is too much for Ryan and he turns into a bee for a long period of time. He is perhaps trying to deal with his guilt, although this is never clear and he comes back not appreciably changed (apart from a few glib observations about the ways that insect and humans live). I was not expecting the conventional tale of remorse and repentance, but Munroe does not supply anything quite satisfactory in its place.
Mild quibbles about the ending aside, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask is highly recommended. Munroe is a clever writer who takes chances, many of them paying off in complete disregard for how these things are supposed to work. Reading this book was quite a pleasure.
Last modified: July 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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