A while ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of Mr. Exposition Man. Mr. Exposition man is a superhero with only one power -- the ability to summarize backstory at blinding speed. Mr. Exposition Man can appear at any time and take on the guise of any character: wherever there is a sloppily plotted film, comic book, or novel, wherever a bad guy has struck and the local officials are baffled and an author didn't feel like taking the time to set up the scene, someone will say, "Who would do such a thing?" At this signal, Mr. Exposition Man will step out of a shadowy corner, saying, "It all started back in 1987..."
Mr. Exposition Man's magical appearance relieves the need to do the hard work of foreshadowing, character development, or smooth transitions. That's why he appears so often in the sorts of films that spend fifty times more on special effects as they do on a screenwriter. When I picked up Austin Grossman's new novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, a more literary treatment of a world peopled with superheroes and arch-nemeses, I was hoping that Grossman would not feel the need to employ Mr. Exposition Man's services. Grossman is well known in the world of video game design, as well as a PhD candidate in English Lit at UC Berkeley. He also happens to be the twin brother of sci-fi novelist and Time Magazine book critic Lev Grossman. The Grossman twins are both Harvard grads, and all of this is the kind of stuff that has book jacket copy writers at major houses salivating.
Austin Grossman knows his stuff. He has clearly spent a lifetime steeped in comic book lore and his superhero knowledge is vast and encyclopedic. The novel's premise is similar to that of Alan Moore's classic Watchmen or even to the pixar movie The Incredibles. It takes place in a sort of counter-factual present day, in which a significant minority of humans have super powers, and this causes them no end of emotional, moral, and physical torment. "This morning on Planet Earth, there are one thousand six hundred and eighty-six enhanced, gifted, or otheriwise-powered persons," the book opens. These members of the "powered community," or "metahumans" as they prefer to be called, came by their abilities in myriad ways. "Once in a hundred million times, a lifetime of factors align, and at the right moment something new coalesces out of high-tech industrial waste, genetic predisposition, and willpower, with a dash of magic or alien invention," one of our two narrators, Fatale, explains. "It started happening more often in the early 1950s, and no one knows why -- nuclear power plants, alien contact, chlorinated water, or too many people dancing the Twist."
Grossman alternates the action between two narrators, one on the side of the forces of light and the other for the forces of darkness. Dr. Impossible, an angry narcissist with childhood problems, developed his abilities after being accidentally hit with a "zeta beam." As the book opens he is being held in a special prison, a holding facility for captured supervillains -- but being, of course, a supervillain means he escapes in short order. In the custody of two young, green interrogators, he makes quick work of them. "They can't believe they're interrogating me, the terror who held the Supersquadron at bay for over a decade. A guy who stood in the oval office and told the President of the United States to call him Emperor." (anyone else feel the impulse to insert a Dick Cheney joke here?) "And now I'm inches away, chained... I see no reason why I should make this easy for them." His archnemesis, the golden boy, American hero, unbeatably powerful CoreFire, has disappeared, and is maybe dead. Now, finally, Dr. Impossible believes, he will be unstoppable.
The rest of the chapters are narrated by Fatale, a fascinating, complex creation for whom being a "hero" is more a curse and burden than a gift. Fatale is half a woman wired and grafted inside a 400-pound, 6-foot-7-inch metal and elecronic body. She has no memory of who she was before half of her was sheared away by a bus and a stone wall in Sao Paolo, no life before the top-secret army "super soldier" program turned her into this cyborgian thing. When she is recruited to join a famous hero team called the Champions in order to fight the newly emboldened Dr. Impossible, she takes the job. How could she not? What else could she possibly do?
The natural pace of a superhero story is serial and open-ended. Room is always left for a new character to rise or an old enemy to re-emerge so that there will be a plot for the sequel or the next volume of the comic or the newer version of the Xbox game. In a stand-alone book, there's only one way to fit in all that necessary information -- Mr. Exposition Man, lecturing away at us. Many things about Soon I Will Be Invincible are clever and entertaining. I love the chapter titles, each of which riffs on an old comic cliche: "Welcome To My Island," "At Last We Meet," and "But Before I Kill You" are a few of my favorites. An appendix in the back of the book is "Selections From the International Metahuman Database," a list of the names and powers of various superheroes and baddies, many of whom are not in the book or who are just mentioned in passing. I get the feeling that inventing heroes is the fun part for Grossman. Choosing just a few and rendering them in three dimensions, however, is not his strongest suit.
If Soon I will Be Invincible doesn't succeed on all fronts, it's not really Austin Grossman's fault. It's just that he chose to take on the unenviable task of using 1000 words to describe what should have been a picture, for 280 pages. IS there any way to write a (non-graphic) novel about superheroes and prevent it from reading like a transcript, a pale imitation of a Marvel series, an Xbox game, or a Hollywood blockbuster? Not even Mr. Exposition Man can answer that question.