Author: Austin Grossman
Publisher: Vintage International
In the last decade, super-heroes and super-villains have burst from the safe phone booth of the comic page and leaped into nearly every medium out there. What the Watchmen comic began in the eighties, the film has now done for a new audience. Soon followed by Kick-Ass (2010) and Defendor (2009), it points us toward a genre defined by post super-hero fatigue. We’ve already sped past fanboy gushiness and entered the realm of sober deconstruction.
Mainstream literature didn’t even get a golden age of unabashed super-heroism. Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem were exposing the dark skid marks of super-fandom even as the underwear was being pulled over the first pair of tights. Into the twilight of what Austin Grossman calls “Geek Lit” swoops his 2007 novel Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Having already established himself in the video game industry, Grossman turned his hand to more serious pursuits between graduate seminars in English literature. The novel takes a real-world look at the lives of a cast of heroes and villains. Told in parallel first-person narratives, one from the point of view of a hero (Fatale) and one from that of a villain (Dr Impossible), the story kicks off with the disappearance of its universe’s Superman stand-in, CoreFire. The mystery prompts a disbanded group of heroes to join forces once again, pulling in new members such as Lily, a reformed super-villain, and Fatale, a cyborg warrior. The disappearance also triggers the opportunity Dr Impossible has been waiting for, and, before we can laugh maniacally, the evil genius escapes from prison.
Early on, Dr Impossible wonders “whether the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could with his life.” The regret is fleeting, or perhaps he just can’t help himself: as soon as he’s out, he begins planning his thirteenth attempt to take over the world. The previous twelve all failed at the fists and ray beams of a varied gaggle of super-friends. His latest diabolical scheme is to start a new Ice Age and establish himself as ruler by dolling out heat and energy to those willing to pay, prostrate, and beg for it.
Trapped in a cycle of repeated behaviour, Dr Impossible, with his nefarious plan to freeze a world where Malign Hypercognition Disorder is the root of all evil genius, is Grossman’s most elegant conceit. The novel looks at super-powered life in an unflinching, straight-faced way that mixes moments of humour and darkness as back stories are woven into the narrative stream. These anecdotes add texture to the novel as the plot itself trundles along at a sluggish and sometimes melancholic pace.
Good guys, bad guys: how different are they under the mask? “Once you get past a certain threshold, everyone’s problems are the same: fortifying your island and hiding the heat signature from your fusion reactor.” Awkward and gawky, frozen into an extended adolescence, the heroes and Dr Impossible are all just kids who’ve been told by doting parents that they were special, that they could be anything and do anything. It’s just that they were never told how or what or why, so they flounder. Heroes and villains are always in search of a nemesis. They’re looking for the key element in a narrative they already know by heart. You can rule the world or save it, but then what? The future becomes vague. It’s the origin stories we want, and these are told obsessively.
What are you going to be when you grow up? Few could answer definitively. Ask instead where things started going wrong, and each would have a story to tell. It’s just that bullets don’t bounce off us, and our hearts break too easily. Grossman paints a world where we can dream otherwise.