In the Bruce Willis movie Unbreakable, my favorite from among the nocturnal ventures of M. Night Shyamalan, a train derailed and collided with an oncoming. One man, David Dunn, survived the crash; everyone else on board was killed. Dunn was unscathed. He didn't have a single scratch or bruise on him whatsoever. We learned later that he has superpowers. Later, David was stalked by a sinister character, Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson. This character had brittle bones and he could easily be hurt by the most benign of causes. He had a medical condition called osteogenesis imperfecta. He had the most fragile constitution that was always on the brink of breakage. They called him Mr. Glass.
In the Sean Ferrell novel Numb, a man suddenly materializes out of a car accident, his origins unknown. We do not even know if he's a refugee from Krypton. This man is numb. He cannot feel any pain. He is a walking painkiller. He is diagnosed with a condition called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis. His name is Numb.
The problem with Numb is not that he is numb, but that he is a magnet for disaster. He can be cut, wounded, hit, ran over, kicked, slapped, knifed, nailed, punched, burned, inflicted with every imaginable assault. But it won't make a difference. He is untouchable.
I must have lost a lot of blood reading Numb. You know, squinting my eyes every time the tingle of imagined pain travels from the stressor to the nerves, propagating through the nervous channels, right up to the brain center of activity, down the spinal column, and back to the dendrites and axons of the skin muscles which felt the stimulus and, being stimulated, twitched and contracted and felt the final irrevocable pain. Numb can't feel them but I, reader, can. It's making me touchy.
Numb is an anti-graphic novel, an intelligent one. An anti-graphic in the sense that it offers a send-up to the concept of superheroism in books and films and graphic media. For a first-time novelist, Sean Ferrel does it with supernatural ease. The entire set up for the hero is complete. Here's a list.
The costume: Check. See the book cover for the first Numb costume. Pants torn by tiger claws, complete with red scratches. There are more fancy "suits" Numb gets to try out in the book. They all looked good on him. There is even one for the pair of him and his sidekick parodying the caped crusader and the bird-crested boy.
The make up: Check. Ever arrived for a photo shoot with surgical threads dangling out from a freshly stitched wound on the forehead? Or with holes in the palms of the hands and soles of feet, just like Jesus resurrected and taunting the doubting Thomas. Or trailing with blood down hospital corridors, smearing the floors with "bloody footprints." It's cool.
The sidekick: Check. A man named Mal, the Spanish word for "evil." The name sends signals that this guy Mal is more than the usual Jimmy Olsens and Sancho Panzas. Hell, this sensitive friend could be the archenemy himself masquerading as a friend. The evil guy Mal is an anti-sidekick. He's the one who supported Numb during his first sally with the first enemy: a tiger in a cage. Then due to irreconcilable differences, he and Numb had a falling out and parted ways, but later they reunited for several more sallies. Don't sidekicks stay with the hero till the end? This one is different. The sidekick has his own mind, his own pain trips and "power trippings." He is a sidekick who wants to kick Numb aside. There's their misadventure of the spontaneous combusting engine, the misadventure with the murky waters via bungee jumping, and a final unforgettable sally that marked Numb for life and Mal for death. Mal is the narcissistic hunger artist who is his own hero. A perfect foil for Numb's understated powers.
The love interest: Check. A blind woman and budding artist named Hiko. Sculptress of found objects, including Numb. Her installation artworks have more than an aesthetic function to the novel's forward motion. Her sharp pieces double as performance art to Numb's artless actions. Hiko's found art is a mechanism that drives the book's found direction, its love interest. There are uncommissioned pieces of things in the book that suspiciously function as pieces of art: the bungee jump harness left hanging for a while in the chair, the TV draped with pages torn from a book of Braille. Numb's body is an artwork in itself. It's target practice, open to all interpretations of pain, repository of all kinds of sharp objects.
The third party: Check. Emilia: the model with long fingernails and long legs. A tigress: she is no Catwoman. Perhaps the second villain in the story after the tiger (but really there are so many hidden villains here it's hard to not label everyone around Numb as villain, including the writer who plotted everything down pat and the reader who relished the benumbing turns of events). Anyway, Emilia. Lust, caution. She instigated a sexconflict in Numb that sets Numb on direct course to selfdestruction. Here, the classic lament of antiheroes. The only enemy is one's self, overcome yourself and you are Zen-certified.
The power: Check. As described, the inability to feel any pain. But the scratches, bites, slits, wounds, gashes, scars are still manifest on the body.
The weakness: Check. Numb's loss of memory, or his lack of it in the first place. He doesn't know who he is other than being the numb Numb. If not for that, he is good to go. Only, the pain does not always come in the form of physical pains. It also comes as a multitude of pains in the ass that surround him and dictate to him what to do with his life. He has his agent who looks after his business interests (which means finding sources of more pain). There are unknown cameramen who follow him wherever there's a small chance he'd sprain his ankle or twist his elbow.
Having no past, his privacy is secure. But the ongoing present, the blow-by-blow moment, is his past. Numb, pain personified, is the dream of reality television. He brings the circus to the tube. He grants interviews but is asked to sit on a chair studded with 2-inch nails pointing up. Escaping from the circus, he lands on television and magazines, staffed by the same carnies. The PPV viewers pay per pain just to see his perforated flesh and relish the open skin. Don't people just love to project their pain on someone else?
The power and the weakness of Numb do not at first mix well. But later on in the novel, after his hardships and mal-adventures, we get the sense that the states of numbness and amnesia may not be mutually exclusive after all. That is, being numb is being forgetful. The absence of memory presupposes the absence of pain. For what is numbness but forgetting pain, not being able to process the hurt, the condition of invincibility. What is more painful for Numb is not that he is being wounded on all sides, but his inability to express his pain. More than losing his sense of touch, he is out of touch. Insensate, he lost a sense of reality. He became unresponsive to his own needs and those of the person he loves. He lost his sensitivity; he became an insensitive monster. His numbness overtook not only the physical, but his mental and emotional domains, too. Comes the all too painful realization: Oh my god I created a monster inside my own invincible body. I am the villain. I am the bad one. I am Numb.
The villain. Check. For one, there's tiger Caesar in the cage. But the tiger and the aforementioned tigress are only physical manifestations of villainies. There is a higher order in the spheres of superpowers and allied sciences. It's a sticky thing. There are many candidate villains in the story. There is a commentary here about the mass media exploiting the abnormalities and special abilities of people. The commodification and marketing of pain. Numb is being branded as a product, the new miracle man. Carnies flock like vultures around the dead flesh of human numbness, while the carnivores-viewers consume the pains of others like vegetarians devouring leaves.
The novel's strength and weakness are in its use of language. Numb as a character disengaged from his own physical situation is well described early on. This is when our hero accidentally nailed himself to a pole. He was trying to stick a tent flap to a pole using a nail gun.
I was embarrassed. The others already teased me about not knowing how to tie decent knots. Now I was stuck to a pole. I pulled my hand hard, but the nail was deep in the wood. The skin was purple and getting darker. I pulled at it more but thought the flesh would tear before the nail came out, so I stopped. I was surprised by how much stretch there was in skin.
The last sentence perfectly captures not only Numb's clumsiness in the job but also his, well, numbness. The book is well written but is marred by explaining too much its rhetorical flourishes. Some sentences tend to squeeze in the meanings of words, instead of letting them speak out for themselves. Early on, for example, when Mal picked out the piece of glass protruding from Numb's back, he said to the guy, "I don't know what you're up to, but you're not gonna start making keepsakes out of the things that hurt you." Numb then follows this through with a thought: "I knew he wasn't only talking about the glass. He didn't like Darla ..." Ferrell could have kept the word "keepsakes" as it is; its intended irony would have been more effective when information that was already sensed by the reader was withheld. Another example: Before the fight with Caesar the tiger, Mal again had to mind Numb's injury: "'You'll want to clean out that cut,' Mal said. 'You don't want to get an infection before your big day.' He said 'big day' as if he were spitting the words out, as if they tasted wrong." The "big day" could have been left with its meaning sinking through without spitting out its ironic sense the way Mal bitterly delivered the words out.
These minor points aside, this novel holds its own as something unexpected in literary fiction. It brings fresh perspectives on the literal pain of heroes in novel ways.
Wouldn't it be great if Night directed the movie of Numb? With Jim Carrey playing him, like, laid-back. It's slightly right up their alleys, no. But Numb's handlers in the book seem to have their own ideas. There are suggestions of a possible "Will Ferrell vehicle" or a Farrelly Brothers flick. But with script written by novelist Sean Ferrell, who knows more than his alliterative affinities, it would be a nice Ferrell-Farrelly-Ferrell combination. Far-fetched?
Going back to Unbreakable... Dunn and Elijah's many encounters in the movie culminated in a confrontation that unveiled the definition of their roles in the world, the meanings of their in-born powers. It was a scene well prepared in advance, the only possible conclusion between the clashing will powers of two identities, two opposable thumbs. Unbreakable enacted its own template of the comic book enterprise.
Whereas the movie is concerned with the nature of heroes and villains as the natural state of things, the book Numb does not have a neat black and white distinction in its moral compass. There is only a broad spectrum of shades of gray in its human scale. The book is so laden with comic inconsistency as to be a Will Ferrell slapstick. I think it's more like a Colin Farrell fit.
In Numb, the roles are played out in the less discrete analogues of heroes and villains in society. It is a more earthy state of man in a comic situation, less rigid in its distinction, and thus less clean and more blood. The hero-villain fills up his own niche according to his capacity to dole out sympathy and rise above his benumbed state and act in accordance to what decency dictates. Mal and Numb are not totems of good and evil but the potentialities of good and evil. Numb enacts its own comedy of existence.
"[This] book has a lot of heart," says the enthusiastic front cover blurb. It has that, yes. More. It's got some little bits of soul in it too.
I received a copy of the book from the publisher.