I mentioned that I was reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain in a previous post. Well, I’ve finished it. I honestly don’t know what to think of the book. I’ve read it twice, and I get the impression that I’m just not getting it. (The reviews I’ve read are mostly positive.) There are jokes in the story . . . but I never found them funny.
The story is a satire – both of superheroes and of culture – but the satire seemed to fall flat. The superheroes are parodies, but not particularly funny ones. (For example, the Superman analogue, Omnipotent Man, is a dumb country hick.) I had a tough time telling when the story was supposed to be satire, and when I was supposed to take it seriously.
The basic plot is this: Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman is a therapist and she is hired by F*O*O*J (the story’s Justice League equivalent) to help with several team members who are having problems. While she’s treating the characters with her dubious methods, a character turns up dead. Some believe it’s murder, while others say natural causes. The team members must endure their therapy sessions while they continue the investigation. The novel is framed as a self-help book written by Dr. Brain’s recollections of the events.
While this could make a very interesting read, the execution is lacking.
I’m assuming that Dr. Brain is meant to be a mockery of modern pop psychologists. She’s extremely arrogant and certain she has all the answers, inserting a great deal of unnecessary jargon into the narrative. She also gets some of the jargon wrong (psychemotional instead of psychoemotional). While this jargon-filled self-important style of narrative may work as a satire, it makes the novel feel like a bit of a chore to read. It also doesn’t fit well with the few action scenes, since as a bystander, Dr. Brain can’t be close to the action.
Although the novel focuses on only a few characters, there is so much exposition packed into the narrative that it becomes tedious to read. It’s an attempt at world-building that falls flat because it interrupts the flow of the story. Unfortunately, you can’t just skip these exposition dumps, because the events make no sense without them (and you never know which pieces of exposition are important to the story).
There are plenty of references to serious issues – homophobia, racism, drug use, sexism – but since Dr. Brain is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, it’s impossible to tell what is meant to be taken seriously and what is meant to be satire.
The superhero elements are really window dressing for the rest of the story, and if you’ve read any deconstruction of the superhero genre before, the story will seem very familiar. (All the heroes are corrupt, dysfunctional and have every neuroses in the book.)
In spite of this, I was still interested in the resolution of the investigation.
The worst part of the novel comes during one of the therapy sessions. It is revealed that one of the characters was raped by another. (Names removed to prevent spoilers.) How does Dr. Brain respond?
“You were frightened by this experimentation -”
“It’s not [your rapist] you were angry at. It’s yourself.”
“Your angry and hatred towards [your rapist] are proof of your joy in . . . and love of [your rapist].”
“The very intensity of how much you deny having enjoyed your experience . . .”
“Obviously you loved being dominated by [your rapist].”
What. The. Hell.
That is one of the most horribly insensitive treatments of rape that I’ve ever read. The victim is flat-out telling Dr. Brain that it was rape and exploitation, and Dr. Brain spends her time insisting that the rape was actually a positive experience. Any therapist who spouts stuff like that should have their license revoked. I sincerely want to believe that this was meant to show what a horrible therapist Dr. Brain is, but the story seems to take her side.
I got so frustrated with the book at this point that I nearly didn’t finish it.
I did finish the story, but the resolution felt unsatisfying. The final battle has a bunch of new characters thrown at us, but since we don’t really know or understand the villains (aside from one or two), the battle is unsatisfying. The fact that it is communicated almost entirely by comm chatter for part of the fight - since Dr. Brain isn’t there in person – makes what should be an epic climax, dull and frustrating to read.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book. Go read Watchmen instead.