Jim Queen’s debut novel Sick & Beautiful does something to you when you read it. Like the demonic (or actually, angelic) photo album within that contaminates you as you touch its pages, this novel indelibly marks its readers. It disorients and frustrates, enrages and confounds, but it also illuminates with the ruthless intensity of a sterilisation lamp. If you read Sick & Beautiful right, you won’t be the same afterwards.
Queen’s plot begins as a series of fragments, like broken glass scattered across the sidewalk, each containing your image staring back. Slowly the pieces gather together, the many images becoming one, like watching a video of a mirror breaking in reverse. But what is the final image?
David Temple is an ailing (and ale-ing) photojournalist specialising in the gruesome: murder scenes, suicides, car crashes, etc. It is more than his job; it is his calling, his dark fixation. He isn’t alone. His college friend Richard Hayes, a wealthy socialite, finds sexual delight in his friend’s moribund artefacts much in the spirit of JG Ballard’s masterpiece — or monsterpiece, depending on your point of view — Crash. Sick & Beautiful too explores the valence of eros in the afterglow of violence. Sex in this novel is a manic, compulsive act anchored to the world by real feeling, and the best way to feel alive when you’re paranoid, boozed up and drugged out of your mind is to realise your sensations through the spectre of death. But as with any sexual stimulus, too much of it anaesthetises the senses. It’s a game you can only win for so long.
David is an aspiring novelist while Richard apes the role of film director. Neither of them are what they pretend to be, but when David witnesses a murder and interviews a mysterious woman, he may actually have a story. The woman, Rachel Garland, claims to be an actor, but has no acting credits and her contacts prove false. One more character in a sea of masks.
As David tries to tease out a story, all he can put together is an accumulation of details. Unbeknownst to him, however, a dark story is converging around him and it isn’t long before he tumbles down the proverbial rabbit hole (more like a dark, reality-distorting vortex). Once he is put into contact with an infernal book — a photo album containing dark and disturbing images — he finds himself in a tug of war between chthonic forces that exceed his understanding.
Sick & Beautiful at its core tells the story, at once compelling and pitiable, of one man trying to assert his human agency in the face of dark powers: entities with the metaphysical heft to shape reality. Fittingly, it’s never quite clear just what David’s ontological status is. He may well be dead, but that sort of plot twist is too simple for Queen. In fact, dead characters return without issue; other characters are killed with the knowledge that they have experienced their deaths before and will again. David doesn’t know what’s real. He only knows that he has to take his talking cat and escape the Cloud: the dark veil of evil that conceals itself in plain sight, encompassing the city. To do this, he has to get to Paradise, but this may be hell disguised as heaven, his guardians and informants devils in saints’ clothing.
Or maybe David is having a really bad trip.
What makes Sick & Beautiful such a compelling read is its refusal of genre tropes. David is no hero, but he isn’t quite an antihero: he’s an unfortunate leading man, confused and self-absorbed, and yet there is something resounding in reading him through this labyrinth of a novel. We’re trapped in this narrative with him, condemned to watch Queen batter him against the walls of his own sanity like a sociopathic child shaking the bugs in an airless glass jar for the sheer fascination of watching them die. This is Queen’s world, or rather our world as Queen sees it: a danse macabre of mortality and entertainment, survival and convenience, where the atavism of life as a pitiful, squirming organism under the inconceivable eye of The Absolute overlaps congruently with the quotidian neon glow of billboard advertisements. Queen has no problem collapsing the bifurcation between normal reality and the numinous (however dark that numinous may be). Put another way, Sick & Beautiful lays the groundwork for semi-Lovecraftian metaphysics.
The novel describes a spiritual vertigo where even death loses its meaning. The real horror isn’t in its monsters (which largely elude description) but rather in its insistence that the metaphysical in all its dark potency can exist right here in our own comfortable, material reality. The story is populated with so many competing forces of malevolence one gets the sense human existence is a fragile egg nestled within a chaotic landscape, a metaphysical state of nature. Queen’s conceit is a disturbing one, that around any corner in your city may lurk dark entities beyond your comprehension, and you’d never even know it. It’s like finding out in your forties that the devil really was under your bed all those years ago.
Sick & Beautiful’s ability to enchant the reader into madness is truly something. Very few debut novels have this power to grip and not let go. Queen’s a dark magician of language; inherent vice glides through his entropic descriptions. They’re manic, chaotic, but they can also be quite beautiful. David describes Rachel as “a totem summoned by the squall. She’s a ballerina on the bitumen boardwalks. Rachel performs. Disembodied, dancing and dreaming”. Queen doesn’t waste a lot of page real estate on tangible modifiers. And yet this description serves a deeper purpose: it tells us who she is precisely within the context of David’s experience. The quote’s alliterative flamboyance is truer rendering of who she is than any objective description could be.
Sick & Beautiful is highly recommended. It’s a surreal psychodrama charged with urban decay, drug use, sexual intrigue and all the hopeless decadence a 21st century audience could ever want. Its frenetic pace is unrelenting and when you reach for your bookmark you’re going to find yourself saying, “Just one more chapter. I want to see where this goes.”
28 June 2022