Ryan Boudinot: Blueprints of the Afterlife
A kaleidoscopic novel describes what comes after the Age of Fucked Up Shit
Published: December 28, 2011
Blueprints of the Afterlife
Grove Press/Black Cat, softcover
What an inspired mindfuck of a book. Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife is a post-apocalyptic satirical explosion of a novel, touching on themes of overconsumption, Big Brother, technology, selfhood, and mysticism, among many others. Fans of China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, and, say, Terry Gilliam may gravitate toward Boudinot, but his out-of-control imagination is all his own.
We begin our story in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s not recognizable as such. It’s long after the end of the world, a time that’s become known as the Age of Fucked Up Shit, or FUS for short. It takes most of the book before the reader understands what precisely happened during the FUS—and even then it’s pretty convoluted—but suffice it to say it began with a sentient glacier wiping out most of North America’s major cities and involved a war between humans and “newmans,” i.e., androids. What’s left is a depopulated, trash-strewn land where the line between technology and nature has become blurred nearly beyond recognition and unseen forces seem to control most everything. New York City has been demolished, but Manhattan, at least, is being rebuilt detail by detail—on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. Meanwhile strange portents visit some of our characters, especially dreams involving The Last Dude and his mystical, well-stocked refrigerator in the middle of the desert.
The book is organized into chapters that, for the most part, alternate between the main characters. We have, for instance, Woo-jin Kan, a world champion dishwasher subject to epileptic fits of empathy who lives with his horribly obese foster sister Patsy. Patsy “pharms” for a living, growing drugs and tissues on her own body. Later we meet Abby Fogg, a digital archivist charged with unearthing a lost audio interview concerning Nick Fedderly, the child of hippies who may have invented the Rebooting Device that brought about the end of the world. Along the way she meets an aging singer named Kylee Asparagus, who lives in a grand hotel tended by hundreds of clones, all named Federico, and discovers that her boyfriend Rocco is a “DJ,” manipulating other people by hacking into their nervous systems through the Bionet—a sort of internet that is linked to the collective unconscious and can both diagnose and heal. Meanwhile, war veterans Al Skinner and Chiho Aoshima discover their new grandson is a clone of their dead son. See? Convoluted. Though wildly divergent, all of these characters and more end up crossing paths, or at least come to be part of the same intricately woven whole by the end.
Part of Boudinot’s genius is in the subtle way background is divulged. The necessary history of what happened during the FUS slowly unfolds for the reader through incidental plot points: as bits and pieces of the audio interview, as part of a scene that takes place in a history class, through watching a “memory card,” an archive of personal memories stored digitally as if they were movies. It’s an elegant, unobtrusive way of meting out information, and one that makes Blueprints a page-turner.
Truth be told, the novel is so heavily populated and complex that it’s easy to lose the thread that ties everything together. At one point Abby Fogg herself becomes frustrated with the chaos: “She yearned for plot but instead absurdity after absurdity had been thrown before her, absurdities that alluded to obscured purposes.” It’s a sentiment that some readers may empathize with, but—and here’s another aspect of Boudinot’s genius—each scene is rendered in such captivating, hallucinogenic Technicolor that “getting” the Big Idea behind the novel becomes secondary. Even incidental characters are outlandish and vivid; take, for instance, The Ambassador, a dreadlocked seer who carries a toilet-brush scepter and abandons his playboy lifestyle after being paid a visit by a giant celestial head.
If, however, one cares to look within for commentary on our own world, it’s there to be found. The mostly unpleasant future depicted within the novel—you may wish you hadn’t read the newman sex scenes—is in many ways an extension of our own society. Blueprints begins with the line, “The world was full of precious garbage,” a sentiment that could easily be applied to our own love affair with the disposable. The Bionet chips all human beings have embedded within them are offshoots of those that animal shelters now use to track dogs and cats. And as technology erodes our notions of privacy, the concept of hacking into another human being’s nervous system appears less and less far-fetched.
Blueprints is, above all, a rich book. Reading it is like devouring a sumptuous, exquisitely composed banquet in a foreign land: You may not know what half the stuff is made of, or what’s coming next, but the experience is unforgettable.
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