Posted on December 18, 2008 by Flames
Demimonde, by Justin Achilli, isn’t a pleasant novel to read through. It is coarse, over-wrought, overindulgent in so many ways and unapologetic about all of it. It is Brett Easton Ellis for the 21st century. It is Less Than Zero meets American Psycho, with a dash of Nietzsche, a few sprinkles of Emmanuel Kant and whole lot of King James.
Demimonde refers to the shadowy world of the unvisible, those people gifted with the ability to not be noticed, to be the glimpses on the periphery while feeding their excesses beyond all normal limits. The demimonde is a fae world, where zombies exist because of the faith in their existence but where all-too-human political and religious ideologies rule over both conscious and unconscious thought.
It tells the story of Brandon Arthur, a 20-something scissor-maker whose idea of life is seeing just how much sex he can get, how many drugs he can take and how much alcohol he can consume before he passes out, dies, or gets some more. He is the epitome of the excessive loser and, what makes him even more unsympathetic is that he is well aware of his failings and refuses to change. There are scenes of gratuitous violence and gratuitous sex and even after he comes close to death, time and again, he doesn’t have the good sense to fly straight. He goes right back to his old ways of over-indulgence time and time again. He is one of those characters who scream about how honest he is, as if this in and of itself should ascribe legitimacy to his existence and his way of life. Brandon, however, is a petulant ass. While he is a reliable narrator, he often segues into preachy hypocrisy (which, again, he admits, but refuses to do anything about…love him just the way he is or to hell you!).
The problem with his character is that there really is absolutely no reason to give a crap whether he lives or dies. He certainly isn’t likeable, although he attempts to charm other characters (and by way, the reader) into buying into his thought process, but he is completely irresponsible, all the while espousing the need (and often claiming as fact) to be responsible. He complains about they hypocrisy of others and plays the double-standard game of being a complete hypocrite.
Much of his dialogue and thinking is grounded in George W. Bush era philosophies, name dropping and political diatribes. The character comments on “fags marrying” at least three times during various rants, but what, really, is he (and author Achilli) getting at? Much like his character, author Achilli seems to walk the fence as if he were a hi-wire act above the Grand Canyon, gloriously taking stabs at both sides through Brandon’s diatribes but never really giving a good reason to take any side, except for the lesser-of-two-evils philosophy.
And yet, this seems to be exactly the point that Achilli is making with his novel. It reads much like a script and I often found myself thinking, while reading, that there might be some excellent young actors out there who could bring not only life, but some level of credibility to the character of Brandon Arthur, granted, without all the hard-ons and drug orgies that occur throughout. This is a story that resembles a twenty-car pile-up with the promise of decapitations and body parts at the end like a well-deserved reward. And I mean that in a good way. It’s like a literary episode of Fear Factor and a well-written one at that.
Everything about this novel screams excess and again, this seems to be Achilli’s intention from the very beginning. There is very little tension or drama regarding Arthur’s fate, although there could have been if that had been the intent. Other characters are not so lucky (and in one major case, under-explained – as in, what just happened and did I miss something important here? Saying someone just broke without any context prior to that description just doesn’t make any sense.).
Then again, this isn’t a story about any of the other characters. It is all about Brandon Arthur and how he views everyone else. It is a lesson on how extremists view the world and it isn’t, as I mentioned earlier, an altogether pleasant experience. Women consciously use sex as a weapon, Neo-Nazi’s run around in their thigh-high, black leather boots and swastikas, priests carry their religious icons and good natures wherever they go and all rendered meaningless by the character himself. This is Brandon Arthur’s story and if you aren’t able to grasp it, then there’s no point in getting past the first page, which makes Justin Achilli’s job that much more difficult. We know that the narrator isn’t going to die, nor, thanks to his asides, will his demeanor change much (although there is a glimpse of what he could become in the future at the very end of the novel).
Achilli spews out columns of religious rant, political debate, sexually explicit scenarios (sometimes egregiously disturbing and sometimes simply amusing) and violence on a level not seen in too many books (but often gleefully photographed in all their bloody gore in films like Hostel). The book slowed during those moments of strained political/religious dialogue, but, to his credit, Achilli is a gifted enough writer to keep a reader’s interest even during the speeches (although the excess of the character’s feelings toward other races and beliefs were a touch too much for me at times).
There is a lot going on in The Demimonde, but in the end, it is nothing more than an alternate world co-existing within our own, with the same battles and prejudices existing in both places, the same drives toward excess and self-understanding and the same need to be something more than what you know you are. If anything, it is a world of darkness populated with pitch black and gun-metal gray. There is very little pure white in the demimonde and what little there is, is often extinguished all too quickly.
Mr. Achilli tells his story very well. He is a gifted writer and storyteller, if not slightly demented and sadistic. Throughout all the death, destruction and sexual mayhem, the book ends on a positive note, or rather, it promises something that there is very little of in most of the story: hope. Demimonde, the novel, excels in hitting us over the head with our own self-important excess and our belief in our own immortality. And even if it comes across a little too preachy at times, or washes us in sexual sadism and perversity or drowns us in drug-induced hysteria, it is a novel about transformation and, dare I say it, hope. In this day and age, you really can’t ask for much more than that.
Review by Joe Rixman