Details: (c) Michael Marshall Smith 1994; Pub 1998 Harper Collins Publishers; ISBN 0-00-651266-6
Verdict: Only Forward is well-written and surprisingly profound despite the packaging.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: lethargic_man gave it to me.
I don't think I could describe Only Forward in a way that would convince me to read it. lethargic_man didn't say much about it other than that the humour is fairly dark, but anyway, it's really not the kind of book I read at all. It has a lurid turquoise and orange cover with stupid taglines all over it. It's seriously violent and gory, and gratuitously and self-consciously weird, and it's in every way a boy's book. The first person narrator is the standard OTT laddish stereotype: he swears constantly, speaks about women as something between objects for aesthetic appreciation and alien beings, and is embarrassed to admit to any sort of emotion or kindness, though he's basically a decent guy underneath the facade.
Despite all this, I loved it. All the stupid annoying stuff is the backdrop for a really penetrating and well-executed portrait of Stark. And he's a wonderful character, really wonderful; I'm absolutely bowled over by the way Only Forward presents a real, believable human being starting from such an apparently banal literary stock character. In a way I suppose he's the modern equivalent of the Victorian professional gentleman, who always reminds you that he's a modern, rational, serious man: he keeps going on about how he's not a sucker, he doesn't have time for all that new-age bullshit etc, as if to reassure the reader that all the weird happenings are actually happening.
Having the narrator address the reader directly can be annoying, but it works really well here; I really felt I was building up a rapport with Stark and began to care about him with a depth of feeling that's fairly rare for a fictional character. Also, he is genuinely funny, even though his humour is sometimes cruel or scatological and not the kind of intellectual humour that normally appeals to me. The main twist in the plot is the way that Stark gradually reveals the aspects of his past that he doesn't initially discuss.
The action part of the story is so surreal that just about anything might happen so anything happening isn't really surprising. That said, considering the plot revolves around successive acts of violence in successively weird situations, I was surprisingly interested in it. The narrative is so pacey and engaging that I got caught up in the action. I don't think I've ever read a 'thriller' and found it actually thrilling, before now. The pace varies a surprising amount, even though most of the story is a basically simple thread about a guy on the run from lots of much more powerful but less intelligent villains. And even though the setup is rather unfair, in that it takes place in a world the reader doesn't have enough information about to work out what will happen and where normal cause and effect don't really apply, I thought that the way Stark got through impossibly dangerous situations was quite elegant. He was in enough danger to make things really scary, but his narrow escapes were just about plausible enough to be acceptable.
And there's a whole load of emotional and psychological and even spiritual stuff which is put in really subtly so that I almost didn't realize it was there until I reached the final section. I felt as if I was reading a zany, wacky thriller, but it's a thriller which covers a lot of serious issues which would seem ill-matched with the setting if they weren't done so brilliantly. Only Forward touched me in some of my darkest places; it's partly about a really deep friendship which falls apart for no obvious cause, and about hurting loved ones and not being able to bring back the past. And it conveys very intensely the sense that life doesn't mean anything, but that even if you can't justify it intellectually, there's some worth in going on anyway and trying to be as kind and decent as possible. And it does it entirely without seeming to preach or veer off into pretentiousness. It's funny and exciting and clever-clever and zeitgeisty and readable too; it just really socked me emotionally at the same time. Wow.
Thank you very much, lethargic_man. This is easily the best book I've read in months, and I'm very pleased to have a copy of it that I can come back to or lend to people who might appreciate it.