'Nails Jane' by Trista DiGiuseppi – a Review by Steve Tuffill
This story blends traditional sci-fi themes with those of religion, philosophy and fantasy.
DiGiuseppi uses a device in her novel by employing specific reflective short paragraphs in italics that present the self-discovered thoughts of the Narrator, someone called Ati. But it is far more complex than that. You might not find this kind of structure in a novel that has come through a conventional publisher, and quite possibly much of this would have been removed as being inappropriate.
I feel that this novel is somewhat anachronistic, because I sense that certain things should have already happened before the action begins. This applies particularly to the more religious elements in the story, even though she cocks many a snook at conventional religion. But, nonetheless, setting this anachronism aside, the story is a riveting read. Certainly, the scene at rise makes the reader feel that he or she has hit the ground running.
Trista DiGiuseppi’s Style:
This is what makes this book so different. DiGiuseppi has structured this book in a way that makes it very unique indeed. As a writer myself, I applaud the fashion in which she has departed from convention in many ways by publishing this sort of material.
Much of the story is written describing present-day America in all of its detail. We find camps with homeless people, street corners, even grocery store parking lots described in exhaustive detail. I feel a kind of vicarious intimacy with these scenes.
The only question I have about the book, which I think I should mention early on in this critique, is that it assumes that conventional, God-fearing and Jesus-worshiping religion as we know it today in the 21st Century would still be around even at the beginning of the futuristic landscape that she has painted. This, I believe, detracts quite strongly from the reality that she has carved out in her story. Even the maverick methods used in writing this story are totally acceptable. Having read many books using different descriptive techniques such as books by Salman Rushdie, William Burroughs and other alternative writers, I think this is an interesting way of using multiple themes, played out in the form of a novel. It is almost as if it has been written like a screenplay but in words. This cinema-vérité approach, however unconventional, is something that I would welcome seeing more of. Reading this novel, it sometimes feels like the author was mixing themes in Dante’s “Inferno” with ideologies from Burrough’s “The Naked Lunch” and descriptive passages from Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”
However, this would seem far too simplistic a summing up of a work where so much is being put into describing humans, humanity and all their magnificence, set against an evil (in the guise of Versinon) that pervades all of creation. I do not want to wax too religious, since this novel is a tender effort at re-aligning people’s understanding of religion and all that it entails. Many a time, I myself have had thoughts such as these, that are found throughout the novel and which persuade a belief in perhaps the supernatural, but more importantly the feeling of spirituality. This of course negates the purpose of religion for the sake of religion, and I applaud this.
Descriptions and Characterizations:
The scenes are painted with poignant animation.
DiGiuseppi paints pictures that, even though painful, engage the reader. Take for example the “flesh and metal” description that appears around the beginning of part two, after Ati has been reborn and is spoken by Marou (who takes up the narration from this point):
“I cupped my ears in pain as the sound impossibly tore through space.
The Monster wrapped its long, black fingers around my wings and attempted to tear them from my back. My flesh burned as the thing began to grind its pointed, metallic grip into my feathers and bone.”
Take also for example the invitation in the initial chapter to the Puritan banquet. Gustav invites Ati to a banquet, (and DiGiuseppi describes this in an interesting fashion):
‘“I would like to invite you to a banquet! My people do not hold these festivities often, but the food is remarkable,” he said. As he spoke, his eye twitched and a pungent odor wafted from his mouth.’
Spoken by a man wearing ‘large rubber gloves and matching rubber boots’ hardly describes a conventional invitation to a banquet. Be that as it may, we are quickly reminded that this is the future and nothing conventional is likely to happen at the banquet. The banquet is a trick to get Backsliders in there as a sacrificial penance, but it all goes horribly wrong. Chanting Christian chants, the Puritans go down like flies as they surrender, dropping the syringes they were going to use to poison everyone, and everyone is frozen into inactivity. DiGiuseppi does a great job of describing this.
Throughout, DiGiuseppi employees zoomorphism and, if it is appropriate to talk of it as such, the opposite of anthropomorphism, (since zoomorphism is assumed to be the antonym), but clearly is not. What I am describing is the liberal usage of animal traits to describe the beings in ‘Nails Jane.’ For example, this is delicately expressed in the chapter with the wolves, and appears throughout the book in liberal quantity.
Here Ati is beginning to come back to her complete memory of everything that went before, and she remembers Eva, her clone figure (or was it perhaps the other way round?):
“On my infant world, under three moons, I sat with Ati as she reminisced. It was at that moment I recognized her scent.”
The story goes on to talk about how humans might mask the place and animal scent, and how this might make it difficult to recognize someone in the way that an animal would recognize another animal. DiGiuseppi explains this in dialog:
“Now that I sit next to you, and you are no longer a product of unnatural creation, I smell her. And only her.”
And so here is presented yet another reason why animals can be confused by multiple scents. The story can only bring us closer to the animal kingdom and the way they coexist.
Something that I noticed while reading all of these animal characterizations, was that it resonated for me a lot like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass,’ and the personification of tiny creatures, (who all have very valid points of view!) is very much the domain of Lewis Carroll. Sometimes when a famous author is typecast, it is hard to understand that that type of writing will never appear again from the same pen. (I dread to think what would happen to a modern-day ‘Jabberwocky!’) Nevertheless, this looks like another part of DiGiuseppi’s style and again I applaud the way that this was brought into being.
DiGiuseppi describes humans as being:
“…magnificent, magical and innovative. They are alchemists — building things from other things. The human is amazing by design, perfect in many ways yet flawed by their arrogance. They are powerful, intelligent, and beautiful — and they know it. Humans mask these qualities by distorting projections of themselves, puppeteers beneath strings of Institution…”
This is a remarkable piece of truthfulness, and I might add that it applies to more than ‘Nails Jane!’
The book has a nice balance of tranquility and violence. While the beautiful and sacred process of creation, death and re-creation has some prosaic qualities, the description of the actual strife between beings and monsters ranges between visions of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ — you can almost smell the fetid reptilian flesh hanging from the jaws of the dinosaurs, and feel the crash, as these monstrous bodies thunder down to earth and lay still, never to move again.
Other things in ‘Nails Jane’ are reminiscent of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ where ciphers lead to clues, and there is one enormous meaning behind everything. This is also very well-executed and there are some nice touches, like when Ati, James, and Thal attempt to defeat the Ruin in the basement of the cathedral in Chicago, where the code pans out to 101, a familiar entry-level course code, this time in basic cryptography.
There is no doubt about it. This book would make a great movie!
Versinon is an outer-space life-hating phenomenon that has interrupted the course of human history, bringing war and destruction. A mini synopsis begins Chapter 3 and describes the evolution, “Nails Jane”-style, bringing a fourth class of being into the story, the Naturals. (So far, there are Backsliders, Puritans and Humanoids (Versinon’s trusted troops), all coexisting in this motley universe aggravated by the effects of Versinon.) Fact is, Versinon has had his wicked way on mankind and all other sentient life on whatever planets he can get his hands on.
The main character, Ati, appears to be just a soldier fighting a losing battle against all odds including her own identity. We slowly see Ati progressing through an arduous journey of self-discovery, as she poses a serious challenge to the organized religion factions, managing to save not only the entire universe but also helping the creators of this universe survive right to the end. Ati was raised by her Grandfather and we see the interactions in a series of flashbacks that help flesh out the rest of the story. The transformations she undergoes take her to the point of death at the end of Part One and all of this hints at a further transformation beginning in Part 2.
Part 2 sees the re-creation of Ati and the restoration of her memory, which comes in stages, while she is mentored by her guardian, who is in charge of her re-creation. We are given a short “breather” before she has to return to Maug, the planet of the wolves, which is already under attack from the Snakes, but will be shortly under attack on another front from the Monsters.
Here Ati catches up with her humanoid friends and the story that was left from before is taken up again. Although the story seems to contain many flashbacks and, in this respect, points back to the time when she took the abortive mission, hoping to return home, but crash landing on the ice planet, Maug’s frozen sister planet, where she dies.
They win the battle but there is loss of life and our friends are exhausted from the combat. And now they are planning a return to Vaylock and ultimately to Earth where they will regroup and finish what they started. Briefly on Vaylock they find the video transmitters which are sending a false message to Earth, overpower Bangkor, but not before James retrieves a whole folder full of codes and Ati broadcasts a message to their compatriots on Earth, revealing the whole plot of deception to them.
Back on earth they land in Chicago and head for a massive cathedral since it is within the coordinates. Pretty soon our friends find a locked basement, opening it with the code retrieved from Bangkor’s folder, but not without some further deciphering, since it is a three digit code rather than a four digit code.
And in the basement, working at a computer, Ati finds her and Eva’s husband, Robert, who does not recognize her and even feels that trickery has brought them together. Feeling failed by the rebellion, Robert refuses to believe that Ati is the reincarnation of his deceased wife and declares his vehemence for the Council. At the same time he shares the fact that they will all be fighting a common enemy, Versinon. The other macabre fact is that Robert is in control of the Ruin, the evil slithering mass of metal, flesh, wires, blood and electricity, that he intends to use to annihilate Versinon.
Robert gives the fateful command and sadly this leads Ati’s faithful friends to expire after a very one-sided fight that is more the result of the structure collapsing than a hand-to-hand combat.
James’s last breath discloses to Ati that she is pregnant with Marou’s child. And he tells her that Marou told him to protect her since he (Marou) is now her Keeper. Before Robert can get the Ruin to crush Ati with falling concrete, Noé, the Humanoid appears with the tablet and takes control of not only Robert, but the Ruin and Robert’s console. Noé shoots Robert dead with his gun after he protests that it is all Ati’s fault.
Noé, after declaring that it would be a waste of bullets to shoot Ati, since he did not know what she was anyway, walks off into the distance accompanied by the Ruin, walking faithfully at his side.
Ati falls asleep by her dead friends. She awakens to the sensation of being licked by a cat (since the cats tongue is like a rasp.) It is indeed a cat, and beyond long she finds herself in conversation with her. Her name is Pei. And Pei leads her to the City of Cats where she meets her mother, Queen Guinevere, who is dying of some terminal disease and will not live much longer, succeeding the feline throne to Pei. At the time of the Queen Cat’s passing, Ati is reunited with Marou where she confronts him with her pregnancy. He denies intentionally making her pregnant and somehow, he manages to convince her of a higher objective. Marou flies with Ati across the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean and then on to Australia since this is where they think they will find the lost outcrop of Humanoids.
After traveling westward for some time, they arrive on the Australian coast in the ruins of a large city. In the basement of an abandoned school they find a control hub like the one under the cathedral in Chicago. But nobody is there. There is a scent down there among the devastated equipment that is familiar to Ati and she thinks that she can follow that scent. They find many Humanoids gathered together in a clearing.
Marou feels that he can sense the presence of Death in the sacred place beneath the rock formation that was once called Three Sisters. Marou confronts Death himself and accuses him of mismanagement. To make amends the creature discloses where to find the Ruin:
“Fly until the moon rises, behind you. You will find the beast there…”
They find an abandoned factory and sure enough there is the Ruin. Marou attacks the Ruin and sparks fly from the Beast. Humanoids run out of the facility to see what is going on. Ati takes them on one at a time and curiously they see dead bodies and appear not to wish to engage. Finally, the Ruin attacks Ati head on and she decides to call its bluff. She calls him Olar and he remembers his identity as a famous scientist who is able to save her life, but who now engages in destruction only. Since Olar, the Ruin, is no longer thinking rationally, Marou finishes it off and now they turn to the annihilation of Versinon.
They entered the facility and after a long struggle they find Noé, at the heart of the facility who explains to them that he does not need a set of hubs anymore since the computer system he has built there controls everything. To prove the point he ties both Marou and Ati up with a gesture from his tablet. Ati sees through his veiled threats and pretends to accept his terms where she will escape Earth
if she promises never to return. She tells him she will accept his terms on one condition, that she can save one human life by taking an infant with her. Noé agrees to these terms and Ati goes to choose a child.
At the point when Ati secures the child from the capsule, she kicks the tablet from Noé’s hands, and with the tablet she reunites with Marou, who uses the tablet against Noé and triggers off a gigantic interaction which eventually destroys the computer facility and Marou too.
It is left to the imagination as to how Ati arrived safe and sound back at her beautiful birthplace, on Laero, where there is tall grass, waterfalls, soft milky clouds and everything that describes order, contrasting with the penultimate chapter which is a sort of treatise on chaos and how beautiful it might be, painted by a painter or sculpted by a sculptor.
DiGiuseppi writes in the first person, and this makes this a very reflective piece of prose. I think if this had been done differently the novel would not have been so strong and compelling as it no doubt is. At this point I should state that the novel is full of some beautiful hand-drawn illustrations which are surprisingly powerful in their appeal.
A very powerful method that DiGiuseppi uses is multiple-perspective story-telling. It is almost as if DiGiuseppi is writing a screenplay and filling it full of attitude shots, that pick out the players so well, you feel that they are there in the room with you perhaps just a few feet away.
DiGiuseppi describes feelings very well and the almost tranquil intermission of life on the planet, Vaylock, permits some hard looks at the characters that make up the scenes. The back story that makes up the telling of the search for Ati’s husband, Robert, keeps the fascination alive with the stark reality of living on another planet and making sallies down to earth in the guise of doing missions for Ati’s section commander, Bangkor. From this perspective, the almost hopeless search for her husband is kept alive.
Chapter 5 sets the scene almost like some of the stanzas in Dante’s Inferno. Or perhaps it was Milton’s Paradise Lost?
Chapter 7 is called “Memories” and is again a story within a story but attempts to flesh out Ati’s background. The passage which comprises most of the chapter is in the familiar self-reflective italics and describes an awkward childhood with a difficult transition into a somewhat psychedelic adulthood and a marriage where she bears a son who lasts minutes before dying. There is an odd kind of death wish which she seems to inherit and the quasi-religious capitalization of personal pronouns and abstract nouns seems meant to draw attention to the language of Scriptures intermingled with the narrative.
Indeed this whole chapter is a psychedelic treatise on the trance formation from being human in all of its fragility to transcending that bodily form and turning into a being formed with plasma energy. This is especially poignant after Chapter 6 reveals that the woman found on earth is Ati’s apparent clone, making it just that more distressing because it is also discovered that she too is in fact married to Robert.
The story continues with Ati’s transmogrification into her new form via the opening of the transport capsule. DiGiuseppi describes all of this with intense sensuality, appealing to all the senses and reading like a psychedelic novel.
Indeed there are many very nice touches throughout the novel. For example when Ati meets the Seer, it is depicted as liquid metal, a Mercury figure with a watery androgynous tone. Again, the italicized short paragraphs of self reflection interplay with her exposition of thought to the reader. She questions it in her thoughts, asking whether she is in fact dead, and it replies with a philosophical answer.
We have to remember that, after leaving the planet of the wolves, and being misdirected, crash-landing on a godforsaken icy planet, breaking her arm and having given up all hope of a safe return to Vaylock, Ati goes through another session of self-discovery, where her relationship with Eva, her clone, is yet again examined. Ati is told yet again that she exists only as an experiment. For someone who is supposedly only an experiment, very real things are happening to her. The reader feels what she feels, complete with her burning injuries. Other truths are unveiled at this time and this becomes another stage in a story where a little more is revealed about what is going on prior to Part Two.
The more that I read this story, the more I thought that it is not the novel of an atheist, but more a story written by someone engaged with a sense of spiritualism and a hate of organized faith, (where people are told to blindly accept what they are shown.) “Nails Jane” is an attempt at re-creating spiritualism, replete with deities, other gods, demigods and races of humanity, intermingled with species and animal forms who all have a logical reason to be there. It is not a novel where the novelist has attempted to re-create the story of creation and a belief in God. This is a somewhat nervous look at the future of mankind and highly imaginative story about an alternative view of creation and how things might turn out.
Nonetheless, the figures are very believable and highly lovable, from the computerized Wolf King, to the feline and vulpine creators of beings. Human qualities such as compassion, empathy, endurance and trust abound throughout the novel, which just goes to emphasize that it is a novel about humans and how they deal with certain situations. On the other hand, the story is full of superhuman, and somewhat supernatural beings and these go a long way to making it a riveting read.
DiGiuseppi has done her utmost to keep the reader in suspense, right up to the final few lines of the story. There is twist after twist, and nothing is predictable. The characters are very likable and the central character, Ati, turns out to be a remarkable individual, who like the person that most of us aspire to, takes strife with resolve, reasons with a super-power brain and shows true passion and emotional engagement. She is also humble but also omniscient. A similar character could play a true heroine in Greek mythology.
Finishing my read of this book left me with a deep sigh as I lay contemplating what I had just read...