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The Nobody People

January 16, 2020

Last September I read about Bob Proehl’s novel The Nobody People at Reading the End and put it on my wish list because Jenny said “its turns to dystopia are hideously plausible” and also that it is “X-men made horrifying,” which it definitely is. I got the novel as a Christmas present and just got around to reading it this week. It does seem like the author was thinking about putting X-men characters into our present-day situation in the U.S., and then he tried to turn it really dark.

When I read Jenny’s review, I thought it sounded like the novelist might have had satiric intentions, but sadly, this is not the case. It’s just an unfinished novel. I was hoping for the kind of satiric ending in which nobody saves the day and that lack of saving leaves the readers wanting more, perhaps impelling them to do some saving themselves. But this novel doesn’t do that. It leaves its readers feeling terrible, because they care about the well-drawn characters. All the way to the end of this 475-page novel I was expecting that the threads of the plot would be drawn together, but they never are. It’s like a slice of life except that instead of realistic characters, we’re left with fantastic characters stranded in what seems like our own shitty little world.

The pseudo-realism permeates this novel, which I guess should have been a warning. When it seems like a church has been bombed (actually part of it was “nullified” by an X-man), we are told:
“The bombing made the news, but people don’t keep track of the locations of these things unless they’re nearby. What difference does it make where this one went off? Where those kids were shot? The important thing is that it wasn’t your town. Wasn’t your kid. You wait for one you can connect yourself to second-and thirdhand so you can talk about it at parties. You heard it from your house. Your friend’s cousin is in a wheelchair for life. The other details blur into the next incident. As long as you and the people you love remain intact.”

Proehl draws on the popularity of magical school novels like the ones in Harry Potter and The Magicians to introduce his X-men school where five hundred teenagers are kept secret in the middle of NYC because the hope is that the presence of so many “damps” (his word for Muggles) will keep the power of the X-men-like students from being so dangerous. We first see the school as the main character’s daughter is admitted, so we have one foot in both camps, the magical and non-magical. Halfway through the novel, when the magical people reveal themselves to the rest of the country, we still have that foot in both camps and don’t want anything bad to happen to either. And then the obvious bad guy, the one who “nulls” part of the church and has killed a bunch of other characters, is revealed not to be working for bad guys. The author plays with our sense of right and wrong but not for any reason, as there’s no understanding the motives of the people who are playing the part of the bad guys.

The author draws interesting parallels between the way the magical people have to hide and things that have happened in the real world, but then he makes the parallels less interesting by catastrophizing what happens when the magical people quit hiding:
“People forget or they have trouble imagining it, but people were arrested for being gay well into the seventies. In New York. We had to keep ourselves secret, but we also had to be able to recognize one another if we didn’t want to be alone. We developed languages, ways of seeing and signaling. We had to be legible to one another and illegible to everyone else.”
Perhaps the ambition of the novel is the problem, as this would have been an interesting parallel to explore but here it’s presented only in brief, as a backstory.

The biggest disappointment about the non-ending of the novel is that one of the characters, Carrie, escapes from one of the camps the magical people are being held in, thinking that “she’ll go and bring help, fight her way back here,” and then she disappears and we never see her or hear about her again. This may be what real life is like, but it feels like a broken promise in the world of a novel, where we’re supposed to get a fictional resolution, some impetus to action in the real world, or at least the promise of a sequel.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2020 12:39 pm

    Sounds like it had so much potential. I like novels with ambition but it sounds like maybe he was trying to do too much and it all got away from him? Or maybe he had all these great ideas but wasn’t sure how to proceed? Too bad, especially since you were looking forward to it.

    • January 16, 2020 12:47 pm

      Jenny said to me elsewhere (after I posted this review) that this is the first of two books, and the author wanted the publisher to make that clear. This didn’t happen. My copy has no mention of a sequel.
      I think that if an author is writing something that doesn’t come to an end in its first volume, maybe that author should wait to publish until he’s managed to bring it to a conclusion.

      • January 16, 2020 1:53 pm

        Will you read the sequel in hopes that everything gets tied up?

        • January 16, 2020 3:18 pm

          Yes, because how it ends will change my view of whether this is a novel with something to say or just an imitation of a comic book theme with no purpose except escapism (and it’s not pleasant enough to make that enjoyable).

  2. January 17, 2020 5:19 pm

    Oh my goodness, I do hope for some resolution now that you know a sequel is coming. Sounds like an unsettling read – that quotation about kids was terrifyingly apt for our time.

    • January 17, 2020 5:24 pm

      It really is, which is why I got interested in this novel in the first place.

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