Late in Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003), there’s a sentence that perfectly encapsulates my experience reading the book: “I’m looking for the seam where reality changes to some kind of code.” Indeed, reading this text feels a little like deciphering a hidden message, even as its component elements hammer away like artillery. Maul is a challenging, fierce, relentless novel, structured in a way that suggests a neat answer is in the offing…and there is, kind of, if not in the most expected way.
The book alternates between two story tracks. One involves an edgy teenager named Sun Katz, whose joyride to a New Jersey shopping center with some friends explodes into a madhouse of ultraviolence. The other involves a man named Meniscus, a human lab rat being used to breed strange viruses in a secret laboratory, in a future where men have been systematically rendered obsolete. Sun’s death-defying adventures in consumerist America are somehow connected with the frank sexual politics and bizarre science experiments of Meniscus’ hermetically sealed habitat – but how?
This is the question I was asking myself throughout the book, and I’m still pretty unclear about how it all ties together, at least on its surface, science fictional level – and frankly, I’m still feeling a little dense about that. But the thematic connections are clear, and very interesting. Maul is a book that raises intriguing questions about power and control, particularly regarding gender issues, and uses blazingly vivid prose and well deployed SFnal tools to do so. Propelling the book is a wild, raw writing style infused with fierce attitude. It’s a graphically violent, sexually explicit, and unforgivingly profane book, choices that occasionally make it difficult to see the forest for the trees, but that also lend the book considerable transgressive power.
At times, I found the non-stop action narrative difficult-going — this kind of aggressive writing style tends to work better for me at shorter lengths, I think — but by and large I found it a compellingly unflinching book. It’s a novel that confronts systems, head on — its own fictional world’s, and ours — and it’s hard not to respect for the verve and honesty with which it does so.