By Christopher Nosnibor
I had more than on reason to pick up James Higgerson’s debut novel, and in truth, the fact it looked interesting was secondary. Back in my early social networking days – we’re going back to ‘97 or early ‘98, and time when MySpace was all the rage – I happened upon a page called Bad Marmalade. It was the front for an on-line literary magazine of sorts, and while on-line literary magazines were beginning to seriously proliferate, Bad Marmalade stood apart. It was unpretentious, but equally, the standard of material was particularly high. I was, therefore, very pleased when they accepted a piece of mine for publication. There was mention of Bad Marmalade making the transition to a fully multimedia experience, and of anthologies and special themed publishing events, but none of this was to be, as the editor called time in order to pursue a PhD.
The editor in question also happened to have penned some particularly good prose pieces, and in his contributions to the music site Whisperin’ and Hollerin’, proved to be a reviewer of some aptitude, too. The editor and writer in question was, of course, James Higgerson and first and foremost, it should be acknowledged that completing a novel while also researching and writing up a PhD thesis is no small achievement. Especially considering the fact the novel is really rather good.
In narrative terms, The Almost Lizard is a conventional linear work, a novel with a story to tell. It doesn’t set itself up as being any grand literary statement or groundbreaking. In fact, that would completely contradict the premise of the novel, which presents itself as the autobiography / suicide note of a young man whose obsession with soap operas hasn’t only dominated – and effectively ruined – his life, but also the lives of those around him, including his nearest and dearest. In keeping with its theme, what Higgerson gives us is a novel that sets out to entertain, and while it is clearly satirical and unquestionably thought-provoking in its approach to our soap-opera saturated culture, The Almost Lizard is an accessible read that passes much more quickly than its 450-plus page-count would suggest.
But make no mistake, this is no dialogue-heavy, short-chapter piece of fluff and padding: in fact, quite the opposite is true, and this isn’t only the book’s strength, but its main point. There’s a lot of narrative, detailing the motivations of the lead character, and those projected onto the other ‘characters’ also.
The book begins by testing the reader with a lengthy, implausible and convoluted back-story that revolves around a succession of disasters, disappointments and improbable sequences of events. The fact they’re improbable is, of course, central to both the plot and the psyche of the protagonist and first-personal narrator, Daniel Lizar, the titular lead character in the fictional soap opera from which the book derives its title.
The plot is complex and convoluted and twists and turns and far from credible – which of course makes it incredible – and through the endless succession of cliffhangers and dramatic events, both real and imagined by the narrator, Higgerson creates a tale in which the lines between truth and fiction, natural occurrences and manipulations blur. Oftentimes, the reader is ‘in’ on the plot before it happens, meaning some of the sequences of mishaps and climactic confrontations are quite agonising in their inexorable paths to realisation, a sense inevitability surrounding both the emotional highs and lows. Needless to say, one has a sense that they’ve seen it all before. And once again, that’s entirely the point: the ‘characters’ who populate Lizar’s life become pawns in his bizarre game, and in turn, are all a part of the author’s grand scheme whereby he plays with the formulaic nature of soap-writing in terms of both plot and characterisation.
On this level, The Almost Lizard is a clever book, and the fact it’s presented as a ‘satire’ on our soap-saturated culture, addressing issues of contemporary media influence and questions of nature versus nurture in some ways does the book a disservice, because it’s more than merely a satire, offering up a commentary that also invites the reader to ponder the notion that truth is stranger than fiction – not that I would for a second fall into the trap of aligning the author with his protagonist. However…
Lizar is a mass of contradictions, and is by turns abhorrent and extremely sympathetic. In fact, he’s a remarkably multi-faceted character, who demonstrates a remarkable self-awareness. Arguably, he’s so many of the things soap characters are not. But such jarring incongruities are amongst the things that make The Almost Lizard such a good read, because while working with, exposing and providing a commentary on the mechanics of formula, it also succeeds in confounding those very mechanisms, and in doing so, confounds the reader’s expectations.
It’s also, in places, a very funny book. The one-liners, infrequent as they are, are gold. The protagonist narrator, Danny Lizar writes with what may be reasonably described as an educated, aspirationally literary style, and Higgerson gets into the skin of a 21-year old well. And when the 21-year old narrator recalls his 14-year old self with candour, it’s deftly executed – by which I mean the occasional incongruity is perfectly placed. Take, for example, the climactic Christmas dinner scene, in which 14-year old Danny is tense and anxious, and makes reference to his ‘somersaulting stomach.’ ‘I can’t deny my ball-sack had severely contracted at this point,’ he recalls. If it sounds a little Russell Brand, well, fair enough. But we’re in the mind of a 21-year old, an early adult, recalling his own younger self.
The real joy of The Almost Lizard, however, is the fact that while it does function on various levels and is thought-provoking, no prior knowledge of the soap operas, media theory or the sociological effects of the media is necessary in order to appreciate the story. It’s entirely possible to take The Almost Lizard completely at face value, and that’s as a page-turning novel that’s as driven by character as by plot.
The Almost Lizard is published by Legend Press