The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett
Reviewed by Lila Garrott
11 June 2012
Ebert's Law, coined by film critic Roger Ebert, states more or less that what matters in a work of art is not what that work is about, but the way it goes about being about something. His famous corollary question is to consider whether any given movie is more or less interesting than a documentary would be of the same actors having dinner.
I bring this up because Ayize Jama-Everett's debut novel, The Liminal People, has very standard subject matter for a recent urban fantasy. There are people who have odd powers, some of whom go mad and some of whom secretly run large portions of the world; the protagonist, employed by a criminal organization for the sake of his own odd powers, is sought out by a former flame whose daughter is in trouble; the daughter might be wanted by his employers for nefarious purposes, as well as being in whatever trouble caused her to go missing in the first place. Double- and triple-crossing, jazzy noir details, and so on, and so on.
But what makes this book work (and it does work, mostly) is the voice, the first person narrative of Taggert, the protagonist. Being inside his head for the length of a book is definitely more interesting—and probably more healthy—than having dinner with him would be. Taggert is a healer, or rather his powers give him some kind of mastery over flesh and the body. He can control his own pheromones, de-age himself and entirely change his physical appearance, hear others' heartbeats at hundreds of paces, cure just about any disease for anybody (including complex autoimmune or neurological disorders), and do nasty little tricks such as making an enemy suddenly allergic to their own blood. As a result, his viewpoint is a sea of physical details:
I open my head on the train and take in all the bodies on the way with me. In my car alone three people have genetic diseases—ALS, sickle cell, and the beginning of Tay-Sachs—things I'd have to focus on all day to do anything with. Even then I could only do one a month. Five people have myelin-sheathing issues, either too much or too little. A seven-year-old boy will become blind because of it next week. A five-year-old girl has some sort of chronic respiratory distress. Her blood's not fully oxygenated and hasn't been for a while. Neglectful parents, or someone's too busy cheating on their wife to notice; chronic respiratory problem girl's dad has gonorrhea, her mom doesn't. (p. 29)
The themes here are typical of Taggert's worldview: the problems that cry out to him in almost every encounter with people; his own sense of responsibility for those problems and knowledge of how little he can do in some directions; and his bitterness at the way that other people's ignorance and lack of responsibility make everything a lot worse. Perhaps understandably, Taggert is terrible at getting along with people, and he has no control over his own temper. He's impulsive, moving quickly through phases of acting on various deep underlying obsessions. The only thing he's really afraid of is his boss, whose powers are much scarier than his own.
So in Taggert's hands, the book becomes a fast-paced ride through a kind of thriller that would be cliché if we were focused on the men with the guns instead of on the heart rate of the men with the guns and what that might reveal about their intentions. The action is quite predictable (a reader can certainly guess most of the major events and the general emotional arc from a pretty early stage), but the viewpoint is fresh and entertaining.
The book also makes good use of Taggert's limitations as a viewpoint character. He's fairly intelligent, but he doesn't understand all of what he sees, and restricts himself to reporting events instead of trying to interpret them. Sometimes the reader, who is probably more emotionally intelligent than Taggert is, can figure it out—for example, Taggert’s former lover left him because she was pregnant and didn't think he was a good long-term prospect for supporting a family. When she sees him again, she's cold and stand-offish, unhappy with his reappearance and keeping herself under extremely tight control, because she's trying to conceal the fact that her daughter is his, and she knows that he will read her body language. Taggert does notice how tightly wound she is, but he doesn't deduce why, whereas it's obvious to the reading audience.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the reader has no idea what's actually going on, because there isn't enough information. This is an unusual and daring choice which lends depth and interest to the worldbuilding. We get the worldbuilding at Taggert's level, based entirely within his viewpoint. Why do some people have powers? Are they really gods, or half-gods? What is the meaning of the complex scene he sees in a vision of his employer in a peculiar not-quite-fight with a half-man, half-lion? What powers, exactly, does his boss have anyway, beyond a genius for keeping his true capacities concealed? We don't know, and we may never know, because that isn't the sort of thing Taggert is able to find out. Some of it may be information no one in that world has. It's a rare and pleasant thing to come across a book in which there are loose ends and oddities and things which cannot be tied up in a neat bow and called a system; it may, to some readers, be frustrating, but it definitely feels realistic, and leads to enjoyable and intriguing speculation.
This is a book, then, which stands or falls on its quirks, its turns of phrase, its flung-aside, half-unnoticed details. And when Jama-Everett does well at that, he does very well. Here, for example, is a bit from the introduction of Taggert's employer:
One night we all got drunk in Segovia and tried to piece together the bits of our mystery leader. All we got was a colossal-sized riddle. He won't leave Morocco anymore, but he has bank accounts, which have to be set up in person, in his name in the U.A.E., the Cayman Islands, Scotland, and South Africa. All the royalty of Malaysia sends him birthday cards, all at different times of the year. At least five women claim to be his first daughter, he has no sons, and his grandchildren range in age from six months to thirty-five years old. We've never seen any of his wives. His English, French, and Berber tongues are incredible, but he massacres Arabic as though it were a heathen in the noose of the Lord. Yet he's a devout Muslim. By the end of the night of speculation, I was more fearful of the man than I had ever been before. (p. 8)
The bit about the Malaysian royalty is the kind of humorous, interesting, gently peculiar side-thought that makes for this book's finest moments. The bit about the massacre of Arabic, however, demonstrates the pitfall of Jama-Everett's approach—sometimes, the voice goes over the top, and the prose becomes melodramatic to the point of being florid. There's actually a bit where someone's eyes are compared to precious gemstones. There are some royally over-strained metaphors. And this isn't helped by a tendency for the prose, at some of its tensest points and highest flights, to have left behind its copyeditor somehow; I haven't seen such a book for missing commas and apostrophes in several years. This isn't necessarily the author's fault, but it adds to an impression of overall speed which works against the reader's susceptibility to the more out-there aspects of Taggert.
However, in general the action, the medical detail, the barely-there but always present sense of humor, and the matter-of-fact way the book deals with matters of race, class, and social justice as they come up—Taggert, as mentioned previously, can entirely change his own appearance, but he started out black and prefers to present that way, which gives him an interesting perspective on the ways race and class intersect—this book's many strengths make it a pleasant and promising debut novel, and one which bodes well for future work from the author. It was apparently self-published before Small Beer Press picked it up, and it's pretty clear from the reading experience that this was a good set of choices all around—it's not as polished as one might want it to be, but there are definitely things in here worthy of an audience. A sequel appears to be on the way, and I will read it. Hopefully it will be more thoroughly proofread.