Most who read T.C. McCarthy’s debut novel, Germline, called it military science fiction. After all, it’s a story about a guy serving in the military in a future war. Under that basic definition, I suppose it is. Yet, because of the narrator’s point of view, it lacks tactical or political awareness and eschews scientific understanding of the postulated advances. Told through the filter of Oscar Wendell, an individual so self absorbed (and high) that he rarely relates to the reality around him, Germline is the harrowing psychological coming of age story of a narcissistic drug addict seeking to justify his existence.
I was a big proponent of Germline and have worried a bit over how McCarthy would approach the second novel. Would it be a continuation of the first? A departure? With a first novel that was so bleak, who would want to read, or write, that kind of novel again? Exogene, McCarthy’s second installment in his Subeterrene Trilogy, feels like a response to Germline, with more traditional genre markers couched in an undeniably hopeful quest to find humanity.
The hopeful questor is Catherine, a genetically engineered American soldier. She’s fast, strong, and lethal — the ultimate in military technology. In other words, she’s everything Oscar Wendell isn’t. Called Little Murderer by her sisters, she’s a weapon in the body of a teenage girl taught to kill for her God, with her death the only avenue to paradise. If she manages to survive her two years of service on the front lines, she’ll be decommissioned and shot. She isn’t entirely human, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to live. Rumor has it Thailand holds a refuge for the genetically maimed and Catherine will do almost anything to get there.
Demonstrated in Germline, and confirmed in Exogene, McCarthy possesses an uncommon knack for getting inside his narrators’ heads, plumbing their depths, and compelling his reader to empathize. Where in Germline the prose often came across as self-indulgent and confused (from a drug addled journalist? no way!), the prose in Exogene is colder and more precise, with a hint of things coming apart at the seams. McCarthy takes full advantage of the first person narration, writing with a brilliance not for story telling, but for living inside his narrator’s head. And he does it as well as any author I’ve ever read.
Ultimately though, that same success is a bit of a problem. Catherine, for all her good points, just isn’t as compelling as Oscar. There’s less of a frenetic pace to the novel, and her general disposition is far too fearless for me to ever to truly hold her at risk. Combined with her inhumanity, on which she frequently reflects, I found myself with a psychic and physical distance from her that I’m not sure McCarthy intended. The result of that trade off is a far more coherent and cohesive narrative that tells a traditional behind-enemy-lines military story, but lacks the verve of his debut.
Chronologically the novel jumps back and forth between Catherine’s flight from the U.S. military and her early years learning to make war in God’s name. Woven into this narrative is a broader look at the world McCarthy has built. He paints a disturbing picture that’s all too imaginable given the instability in North Korea and the tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and Asia. His technology is advanced beyond current standards, but not so far that it requires a great deal of exposition. There’s a general awareness that genetic modification isn’t far off, and the work being done in robotics and nerve splicing is incredible. In those ways, McCarthy’s Subterrene Trilogy has something of a ripped from the headlines feel, or at least as much as possible given unreality of it all.
There’s also a natural connection to be drawn between the genetically engineered American soldiers and the western perception of the “jihadists”. Some may find this comparison distasteful, drawing some conclusion that McCarthy is identifying jihadists as some form of unthinking, programmed monsters who kill indiscriminately for God. I don’t think that’s the intent. Rather, McCarthy points out the difficulties — and inhumanity — in any belief system built around subverting the basic desire for survival and doing it in God’s name. By the novel’s conclusion I found myself invested in the discussion on life and death and faith, and more importantly in Catherine’s connection to it.
While McCarthy embraces more military and science fiction and less Hunter S. Thompson, Exogene still depends heavily on the reader’s empathy for Catherine. I empathized, but was also left wanting, remembering the raw emotional power of Germline. However, in that power vacuum exists a much smoother narrative, which results in a novel that will endear Exogene to a broader group of readers even if it receives less “critical praise”.
Despite my relatively small complaints, McCarthy remains an author I recommend everyone read. Exogene is no different in that regard, and makes for a thought provoking companion piece to his visceral first novel. I’m excited to see how he ties it all together in the final volume, Chimera, due out this summer.