18 September 2009

Far From the Great American Superhero Novel

Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves, by G. Xavier Robillard, is a satirical novel that aspires to do for America’s superhero mythology what Christopher Moore’s You Suck did for vampires or Lamb did for the Jesus legend.

But the book feels more like a minor movie from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker school of comedy: throw any joke you can think of at the screen, and hope some of it will stick.

Captain Freedom addresses every common aspect or cliché of superhero mythology: sidekicks, arch nemeses, aliens, time travel, love affairs, mother issues, father issues, adopted-son issues, etc.

And for the sake of attempted laughs it swipes at many and varied aspects of modern American culture: celebrity rehab, comic-book censorship, kitchen decorating, color coordination, dinosaur rehabilitation, interventions, file-sharing, etc.

Here from page 136 is a passing bash at one aspect of the culture, which gives a sense of the book’s tone and targeting:

We contract a few secret polls and learn that the best thing I can do to improve my image is to produce a children’s book. . . .

Before long, my children’s book, Brush Away Fear, is published! It contains illustrations by the best artists and the delightful prose of an unknown writer who agreed to take the job after I offered to pay off her gambling debts. True, I did not author this book myself, but it embodies the Captain Freedom spirit, and I answered the very important questions put forth by my creative staff. Should it rhyme? No. Does it have to have a moral? Heavens, yes. To keep the project honest, I write the acknowledgments myself.

The difference between mine and other celebrity kids’ books is that mine is nonfiction. There aren’t enough nonfiction children’s books out there. Fiction itself is a form of lying, and that’s not an appropriate message for youngsters.
Years back I also criticized Perry Moore’s Hero for piling on too many plot points and letting its main story get lost in the swirl. But that book had a valuable and affecting main story of a young man coming to terms with being both gay and super-powered. Captain Freedom and his book don’t come to terms with anything.

As you can tell from that extract, the novel is written in present tense—Robillard even hangs out a lampshade about that choice. Captain Freedom exists in a blissfully ignorant present, and says as much: “People who enjoy history are always appallingly obsessed with it.” But the result is that there’s no real sense of time passing, and thus no narrative arc. Or, for that matter, narrative.

(Captain Freedom was one of three review copies I was offered over a short period that came with comparisons to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Not one of those books was a Southern gothic satire of morals featuring an overeducated, overweight egomaniac. But this one at least had an egomaniac.)

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