Review: NEUROPATH, R. Scott Bakker

As I mentioned in another post, R. Scott Bakker is an author I adore and fear. He has a very distinctive style and outlook, informed, I’ve no doubt, by his geekish background (he’s a confessed RP’er and Tolkien fanboy), his Hobbesian worldview, and his education in philosophy. When I read his The Prince of Nothing high-fantasy trilogy, I was blown away by his merciless insight into human thought and motivation. Moreover, I was blown away by his ability to reverse the usual author trend of using a novel as a soapbox for a position, and instead use that position to enrich the novel.

With Neuropath he’s less successful in that latter respect. Rather than using his positions on the human mind and heart to make the characters do interesting things, he uses the characters to spout his positions on the human mind and heart.

Neuropath is, on the surface, a detective-thriller, a cat-and-mouse game between hunter and killer. The hunters are an FBI team and a divorced psychologist named Thomas Bible. The killer is a psychopath who sends the FBI videos of people who’s brains he’s mucked about with surgically, with the apparent intention of showing that humans are nothing more than programmable machines. The killer may also be Thomas’s old college buddy, Neil Cassidy.

This “humans are programmable machines” idea forms part of what Thomas and Neil both call “the Argument”, which goes on to claim that consciousness experiences decisions, rather than making them, and that the self is an illusion. The Argument is the real heart of this novel. A lot of your enjoyment of this book will depend on how interesting you find the Argument, because it’s rehearsed repeatedly – whether ad nauseum is a matter of taste.

I did find the Argument interesting, though I had a few quibbles with it. I think Bakker jumped from “free will is an illusion” to “the self is an illusion” too easily. I can give Bakker his straw-man opponents – every novelist uses them – but Thomas’s dismissal of counter-arguments to the Argument because they’re “difficult to express” and “require rehearsal, training” (page 185, in my edition) is unworth of Bakker and of us. Those properties are also true of science’s counter-arguments to a lot of the claims of Creationists, and I doubt Bakker would dismiss those counter-arguments on those grounds.

For me, the most interesting parts of this novel ended up being the atrocities commited by the killer. That’s awful to say, I know, but Bakker’s really good at it – good at making a scene at once clinically fascinating and utterly squicky. There are a few other pleasures – Thomas’s neighbour Mia is an utter delight in every scene, and I almost read him as some subconscious desire of Bakker’s for genuine heroic sentiment, desperately clawing its way to the top of this pile of cynicism.

I don’t find Bakker comes across as being as much master of his form here as he does in his fantasy work. There, his writing felt like the work of a great jazz master, who knew every one of music’s rules, and knew exactly what he was doing when he followed them and when he broke them. Here, it feels to me like he read Michael Connelly’s The Poet, and maybe the Hannibal Lector novels, then jumped up and said “That’s it! I am now prepared to write… a detective thriller!” (Dramatic “Eureka!” finger optional.)

I think the book would be improved by a relatively faithful film adaptation. I think the constant wallowing in the Argument wouldn’t be quite so obnoxious, that even if it were all kept in (and I’m not saying it should be), there would be things present in scenes besides the argument. A book can have whole scenes that are nothing but dialogue (and this book does), but in a movie you’ve still got the actors’ performances, the cinematography, and so on. On the other hand, verbal repetition becomes a lot more glaring on film than in text – I actually got sick of the word “Troy” in Troy.

Is Neuropath a good read? Maybe. It’s truly terrifying in places, and he creates some brilliantly memorable scenes. But the soapbox casts a long shadow.