Pluralistic: Austin Grossman's 'Fight Me' (01 Jul 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: Austin Grossman’s ‘Fight Me’ (01 Jul 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

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The cover of the Penguin edition of Austin Grossman's 'Fight Me.'

Austin Grossman's 'Fight Me' (permalink)

In Fight Me, the novelist and game developer Austin Grossman uses aging ex-teen superheroes to weigh the legacy of Generation X, in a work that enrobes its savage critique with sweet melancholia, all under a coating of delicious snark:

It is, in other words, a very Gen X kinda novel. Prodigy (AKA Alex Beekman) is a washed-up superhero. As a nerdy high-schooler, he was given super powers by a mysterious wizard (posing as a mediocre teacher), who gave him an amulet and a duty. Whenever Alex touches the amulet and speaks the word of power, reaclun (which he insists is not "nuclear" backwards) he transforms into Prodigy, a nigh-invulnerable, outrageously handsome living god who is impervious to bullets, runs a one-minute mile, and fights like a champ. Prodigy, he is told, has a destiny: to fight the ultimate evil when it emerges and save the world.

Now, Alex is 40, and it's been a decade since he retired both Prodigy and his Alex identity, moving into a kind of witness protection program the federal government set up for him. He poses as a mediocre university professor, living a lonely and unexceptional life.

But then, Alex is summoned back to the superhero lair he shared with his old squad, "The Newcomers," a long-vacant building that is one quarter Eero Saarinen, three quarters Mussolini. There, he is reunited with his estranged fellow ex-Newcomers, and sent on a new quest: to solve the riddle of the murder of the mysterious wizard who gave him his powers, so long ago.

The Newcomers – an amped-up ninja warrior, a supergenius whose future self keeps sending him encouragement and technical schematics backwards through time, and an exiled magical princess turned preppie supermodel – have spent more than a decade scattered to the winds. While some have fared better than Alex/Prodigy, none of them have lived up to their potential or realized the dreams that seemed so inevitable when they were world famous supers with an entourage of fellow powered teens who worshipped them as the planet's greatest heroes.

As they set out to solve the mystery, they are reunited and must take stock of who they are and how they got there (cue Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime"). With flashbacks, flashforwards, and often hilarious asides, Prodigy brings us up to speed on how supers fail, and what it's like to live as a failed super.

The publisher's strapline for this book is "The Avengers Meets the Breakfast Club," which is clever, but extremely wrong. The real comp for this book isn't "The Breakfast Club," it's "The Big Chill."

When I realized this, I got briefly mad, because I've only had two good movie high concept pitches in my life and one of them was "Gen X Big Chill." Rather than veterans of the Summer of 68 confronting the Reagan years, you could have veterans of the Battle of Seattle living through the Trump years. One would be on PeEP, one would be an insufferable Andrew Tate-quoting bitcoiner, one would be a redpilled reactionary with a genderqueer teen, one would be a squishy lib, one a firebreathing leftist, etc. The soundtrack would just be top 40 tracks from artists who have songs on "Schoolhouse Rock Rocks":!_Rocks

Every generation has some way in which they seek to overthrow the status quo and build a new, allegedly better one, after all. "Big Chill"'s impact comes from its postmortem on a generation where it was easy to feel like you were riding destiny's rails to greatness thanks to the sheer size of the Boomer cohort and the postwar prosperity they lived through. A Gen X Big Chill would be a stocktaking of a generation that defined itself as a lost generation reared in the Boomers' shadows, armored against the looming corpo-climate apocalypse with the sword of irony and the shield of sincerity.

Which is basically what Grossman is doing here. What's more, doing this as a superhero story is a genius move – what could be a better metaphor for a teen's unrealistic certainty of destined greatness than a superhero? Superhero fantasies are irreducibly grandiose and unrealistic, but all the more beautiful and brave and compelling for it.

You know, like teens.

At 52, I'm a middle-aged Gen Xer. I've got two artificial hips and I just scheduled a double cataract surgery. My hairline is receding. I'm an alta kaker. But I wasn't always: I was a bright and promising kid, usually the youngest person in the room where we were planning big protests, ambitious digital art projects, or the future of science fiction. I had amazing friends: creative and funny and sweet, loyal and talented and just fun.

We're mostly doing okay (the ones that lived; fuck cancer and fuck heroin and fuck fentanyl). Some of us are doing pretty good. On a good day, I think I'm doing pretty good. I had a night in 2018 where I got to hang out, as a peer, with my favorite musician and my favorite novelist, both in the same evening. These were artists I'd all but worshipped as a teen. I remember looking at the two selfies I took than night and thinking, Man, if 15 year old me could see these, he'd say that it all worked out.

But you don't get to be 52 without having a long list of regrets and failures that your stupid brain is only too eager to show you a highlight reel from. No one gets to middle age without a haunting loss that is always trying to push its way to the fore in order to incinerate every triumph great and small and leave ashes behind.

That's why there's a "Big Chill" for every generation. Each one has its own specific character and meaning situated in history, but each one has to grapple with the double-edged sword of nostalgia. Not for nothing, John Hodgman (a bona fide Gen X icon) calls nostalgia "a toxic impulse."

Grossman really makes Fight Me work as a Gen X Big Chill. He's a great Gen X writer; his first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was a knockout debut about superheroes and supervillains that had a very "The Boys" vibe, you know, that neat little move where you contend with the banal parts of a super's life and show how super powers don't make you a good person, or even a competent one.

His followup to Invincible came six years later. YOU is a coming-of-age story about the games industry with a second-person narrator (think "Zork"). Grossman is an accomplished game dev (Tomb Raider Legend, Deus X, Dishonered, etc), and he uses YOU to really plumb the depths of what games mean, what fun is, and how working on games isn't just work, it's often really shitty work, the opposite of fun:

Grossman's last novel was Crooked, a very daffy alternate history in which Richard Nixon is a Cthulhoid sorcerer locked in a Lovecraftian battle of good and evil. This is a purely hilarious romp, wildly imaginative and deliciously certain to offend reactionary jerks:

All those chops are on display in Fight Me: a book that covers its brooding with wisecracks, that spits out ten great gags per page even as it drives a knife into your heart. It's a great novel.

Fight Me doesn't come out in the US and Canada until tomorrow (it's been out in the UK, Australia, NZ, etc for more than a month). Normally, I would hold off on reviewing this until the on-sale date, but this is my last day on the blog for two weeks – I'm leaving on a family vacation early tomorrow morning. I'll see you on July 14!

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