Narcissistic love – Lucas Morgan’s “Anna 2026”

Description by the author / blurb:

“They say there is no hope in the Zone; death the only escape for the addicted.”
Lucas Morgans debut novel. A powerful work of speculative fiction set in a dystopian society on the brink of collapse. Anna 2026 follows the story of Riley, a man determined to rescue his wife, Anna, from a slow death in the Zone – a sealed off area of the city for those charged with taking a new, fatal drug.
Anna 2026 is both a tribute to the bond between husband and wife, and a warning to all those who are blind to what they have, until it is taken from them.
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Review

Riley’s beloved wife, Anna, is accused of having taken a drug that wreaks irredeemable havoc on the consumer. The government, by force of the Steadfast Act, locks away detected consumers, never to be released. Anna is taken away from Riley. And for the novel to come, Riley will fight with all his might to find again the love of his life.

But it need be clarified at once: inasmuch as the book can be said to be a love story, it’s a story about narcissistic love.
Genuine love loves its object for what it is, however that may be; narcissistic love can only love the object insofar as it meets expectations, and in pretending to love the object, it’s only the expectations it lovingly embraces.

 The novel turns out to convey a reductionist view of the human person, a view binding the sense of personhood to a certain part of the body, concretely, the brain. Of course the brain is exclusively connected to the performance of functions that are generally regarded as the distinguishing signs of human beings, like: deliberate choice, intelligence, planning one’s life against a horizon of future. But ‘personhood’ is an entirely nominalistic term, much like love. Is is not inherently based on biology; love does not depend on the whirlwind of hormones; any husband may tell who says he loves his wife, and is very sincere about it, although the scientist might find the level of his marker hormones quite low. And then the idea of love is culturally defined; it is socially defined; it has changed throughout the centuries. And when, above, I define ‘love’ as a counter-term to narcissism, evidently my word must not be taken for granted; I’m relying on a culturally shaped definition, and if today’s culture is the multi-culture of individualism, one might just as well say it’s an individualistic, subjective definition of love. So be it.
But the point I’m making is that ‘personhood’ is equally just a term socially ascribed to members of the human species. It has no foundation in biology. At which point of disablement is one to withdraw the prerogative of ‘personhood’ from someone? When he’s missing his right arm; when his spine is contorted; when he was born with three eyes; when his frontal lobe is severed; when the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, has been extirpated? History has shown that the attribute of ‘personhood’ is liable to be arbitrarily withheld from people.

 That’s why I think the whole story of the book is fundamentally flawed. It pretends to be a story about a love relationship, about the dynamics of such a relationship: to which follies, risks and deeds of moral grandeur it might drive a man. But it really is no story about love. It’s a story about narcissistic love, which is no love. At the end, with the protagonist’s final action, the reader discovers this false pretension of the book and is stricken dumbfounded. He has been mystified all along. What he has read was not what he thought he had begun with. The writer has cheated on him, and cheated big time.

 There is hardly anything more doleful and boring than a story about narcissistic love. True romance and suspense depends on the conflict of the unfulfilled, on the stretching out towards something else, the prize to be gained, the fight to be won, the heart to be captured – the disappeared wife to be held in one’s arms again. There is, however, no conflict in narcissistic love, which always starts from the fulfilled. To fulfil itself, it only needs to bend back, to fall back on itself, unto what already has been there there: the ego.

 At the end the novel reveals Riley’s manic and often desperate actions as a superabundance of narcissistic drivenness, instead of a drivenness for love. But such a stark defining quality should not go entirely unnoticed throughout the story, up to the point of the dismal revelation. Thus the protagonist really shows a growing carelessness for anything that is not “his Anna” and his quest to find her. “A better man might have stayed,” Riley reflects from a later perspective, when he abandons his companions in arms. His carelessness terminates in his going rogue with a gun, always searching for “his” Anna: “I took some pressure off the trigger, though still I pressed the muzzle of the gun into her cheek, and might have fired had she not answered my next question immediately.”
But it is only in retrospect that what seem to be wild struggles for the regaining of the loved one turn out to be the spasms of self-love. Up to Riley’s final, fateful action, instead he seems to act more and more on a principle that Cesar, an ambiguous companion in his search for Anna, expresses such: “There are times when you have to make a move and take what you can from the world, before it does the same to you”. This principle might not flow from a high ethical standard, but it is a realistic principle to act upon in the indifferent world Riley lives in.
Still, as it turns out, Cesar is deeply moved by the political situation and ready to try and make daring changes in the big picture of society. He genuinely cares for his slum members. If his philosophy seems rough and heartless, he hasn’t less a heart than Riley, who, though apparently appalled by the violence he witnesses, pursues his own narcissistic chimera all the way through. He is entirely focused on himself, albeit his mental appeals to “his” Anna out there. She really is his Anna, his own, flesh of his flesh, because she only is the point of projection for his cherished own desires.
Still, the novel is an exciting read, and the main reason for this is that the author keeps up to the very end the illusion that he really is writing a story about love. Else I’m convinced he believes so. I, however, as the reader, think otherwise.

 The excitement is further fuelled by the author’s craft as a wordsmith. He often employs a very graphic language that is able to strike the reader also on the level of body sensations. Thus, when Morgan coins phrases such as these, “The thump of rotors was heavy in my stomach”, he directly links his description with a physical impact that makes his writing so lively and appealing. Thus the perceptive reader can find an uneasy feeling mounting in the pit of his stomach when he immerses his mind in scenery sketches of this style: “I followed his gaze, barely noticing the corpses scattered down the street. Weeds grew through cracks in the bitumen and hung from walls, crows sat sated and full – the zone an ever replenishing banquet.”
As far as orthography is concerned, my eyes fell only upon few typos that don’t hamper with the reading. However, the punctuation enclosing direct speech is very sloppy, as there is no consequent system to it – sometimes fullstops and commas are set, sometimes not. While, overall, I managed to ignore this fallacy in form, at times it proved irritating, made me self-aware as a text-reader and thus snatched me away from the story.

 But my main concern about the formal adequacy of language stems from the excessive recurrence to the progressive aspect of tense. Often its usage seems simply unjustified, and in some cases it even jostles together events that by their very sense should stand one next to the other. To give an example thereof:
Orange-hair dragged a chair from the small dining table behind him, the legs scratching into the glossy floorboards as he stalked towards me and sat opposite.”
Here distinct time layers are glued together, put one above the other, instead of preserving their distinctiveness. Orange-hair does three things: first, he pulls a chair away from the table; second, he walks towards the protagonist; third, he sits down. “The legs scratching” is streamlined in time to the dragging of the chair and thus works as a comment on it. “As he stalked” is a comment on the comment, and in result a fusion of time between the stalking, the scratching and the dragging. But then it’s not just: “as he stalked”; it’s “as he stalked and sat down”, or, in other words: “as he sat down”. By this the superimposing of time lines clearly equates to a confusion of time. It’s impossible that the pulling away of the chair, the scratching, stalking and sitting down can be imagined to happen at the same time. But as a reader, given the sentence as it is, that is what my mind naturally tries to imagine – and it shuts down on the impossibility. I look up confused, I’ve been torn away from the flow of the story.
Another example:
He jerked as if struck, picking up the silenced Glock and ejecting the magazine for the hundredth time”.
Here once more three things must happen in succession, because they cannot happen all at once. Still, they are written as if passing in the same moment of time. “Picking up” and “ejecting”, though two actions even distinct from each other, are superimposed by the “and” – they make a comment on that the character jerks, using for this the progressive form. It would be different if the author had written “The [character] fumbled unsteadily, picking up etc.”, because then the reader could have easily imagined that the fumbling accompanies the “picking up” and the “ejecting” in the same moment of time. But the content of the sentence does not condone the interpretation that the character is jerking all the time, while he picks up and ejects – however, this is what the grammatical structure of the sentence displays. Again, layers of time are confused as a result of the excessive reliance on the progressive aspect of time.
And still another example:
I followed demurely as she lead me another block [typo! “to” missing], stealing glimpses at the screen … and resisting when she tried to drag me into the packed … store.”
While there’s no problem with “following demurely” and “stealing glimpses” at the same time, this does not hold true for “following demurely” and “resisting”. However, according to the grammatical shape of the sentence, this is exactly what happens. Again, the reader looks up slightly dazed, pulled away from the story.
Yet another instance:
Cesar … strapped a night vision eyepiece on and looked … to the the dark apartment blocks, mumbling to Omar as he adjusted focus.”
Clearly, Cesar can only have adjusted focus after he pulled the night vision eyepiece on. Nevertheless the sentence depicts these two events as conflated on the same spot of time line. “He strapped his eyepiece on as he adjusted focus”, that’s what the improper grammar of the sentence makes it tell, and it’s just as aberrant as: “He put on his T-shirt as he put on his pullover” – these are two distinctive actions, occurring one after the other.

 I really can see no reason why Morgan shows this tendency to conflate time and thus confuse time differentiation. This could be a promising technique if a special effect was to be produced, but the sentences of time coagulation turn up most often when nothing out of the ordinary is to be expressed, such as the simple pulling on of an eyepiece and adjusting its focus.
Of course, there are also moments of greater importance when this happens:
He screamed and tumbled down the stairs, sprawling in the gravel and whimpering as he struggled to staunch the flow of blood with his hands.”
It is to notice that the “sprawling” and “whimpering” are not separated in time from the struggle to staunch the blood flow. To the contrary, they are tied to the same level of time by the “as”, and thus they are commenting back on the “tumbling” as simultaneous events. Now it might be argued that the protagonist, in this scene, was in such a state of emotional and cognitive upheaval that he lost the perception of time as a structured flow of chronological events – in consequence his mind threw different planes of time together. However, such an interpretation is cut off by the fact that this is the only incident of time confusion in the whole, indeed quite momentous scene. Further, the interpretation is negated by the fact addressed above: with Morgan, the bundling together of different events into one is not limited to moments of exceptional consequence.
I realised that this technique of the author is hardly a technique at all, but, quite simply, a grammatical flaw in writing; I first came to fully understand this when I tripped on this sentence:
I left Ben sitting in the living room organizing our supplies, closing the door to his small bedroom and sitting on the edge of the bed.”
In this case there clearly shows Morgan’s tendency to disregard the true function of the progressive tense – namely, expressing a continuation in time – and to use it instead quite as freely with a non-progressive intent as with a progressive one. In the sentence above, the closing of the door and the sitting on the edge of the bed cannot happen at the same time. However, here they are chunked together on the same par of time and further cover the same time instant as “leaving Ben sitting”. But what the author really meant to say was: “I left Ben… I closed the door… I sat on the bed.”
The excessive use (four times) of the -ing form of the verb in the sentence results in a further difficulty. Two of these verbs refer to Ben, but the other two to the protagonist. I had to read the sentence a second time before understanding that not all four of them referred to Ben as the actor, that is, the sitting, the organizing, the closing and the sitting again.

 Up to this point I expressed my dismay about the philosophy of the novel, that finally forced the conclusion on me that its theme was a hoax all along, that it wasn’t about love.
I also marked out a grammatical idiosyncrasy of the author in his heavy dependence on the progressive aspect. This idiosyncrasy sometimes interrupted my reading experience, tore me out of the part-taking in the events and made me become aware of the text as a text, and myself as the mere reader of a text.
There is a final note of discontent I’d like to add. The end of the novel is simply unsatisfactory, apart from the disillusionment I suffered from the author’s cheating about the presentation of his real theme. As an undercurrent to Riley’s search, there unfolds the explanation about the political situation that made the Steadfast Act and Anna’s disappearance possible in the first place. Riley is involved with Cesar’s group and learns about their plans and schemes that might shake the present order of things. And if Riley doesn’t care about politics, fixated with every thought on “his” Anna, it is clear that the author cares, else it’s not comprehensible why he should have worked a draft of the political situation into his story. Lurking behind the events about Anna is the build-up of the menace of political power and civil warfare. But with the sudden end the build-up is pulled down and wrapped up in a couple of phrases. They could hardly make for a more drastic anti-climax. Political upheaval, it is said, does in fact take place. But that’s all that is said. All the forebodings of the coming civil storm are summed up and boiled down in a simple paragraph. The reader cannot feel but that the author has made a terrible waste, and, besides, heavily disappointed his expectations again.

 With all these negative aspects of the book highlighted, one might ask how the three star rating comes about. But its major flaws signalled really point back to its strong qualities.
It downgrades the novel that it seems to tell a tale about love that ultimately proves not to have been about love at all – however, as I have remarked above, it’s not before the end the reader is disillusioned on that point. Up until then he can keep on reading with a vivid perception of drama: a conflict about the unfilled, about the reaching out for what ravages the soul with passion. And this perception kindles Riley’s story, it sets its quick pace on fire.
Again, it is a serious setback to quality that the situation of society, which is drawn out progressively before the reader’s astounded eye, is ultimately brushed off, done away with in a single paragraph – even though the paragraph hints at a cataclysmic change! But up until the end the reader’s attention is heightened by this parallel story line and the promise of its final breakthrough into the main line of Riley’s desperate quest for Anna.
The quick change of scenes and Morgan’s vivid language spice the novel with the formulae for ready excitement. For almost the whole of the novel, the reader can believe that the subject-matter, thus formed, will stay true to his perception of it. He can revel in the author’s make-believe that it will keep its promises – up until, well, the bitter end, which really is bitter here.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Link to Amazon USA (paperback)
Link to Amazon USA (kindle)
Link to Amazon Germany (paperback, kindle also available)

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