A lot of reviewers have compared The Song of Synth by Seb Doubinsky (Talos/Skyhorse-2015, PS Publishing-2013) to the novels of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs. I’m not going to make that comparison.
Besides the fact that comparisons to Philip K. Dick have come to mean little more than “this book is pretty weird and probably contains drug use,” Philip K. Dick was no poet. Seb Doubinsky is, and the prose in the first three-quarters of The Song is hard, strong, precise, and sometimes beautiful. PKD’s prose was functional and clean, but his real talent was in plot twists and mind fuckery, and while The Song has some mind fuckery one might call PKD-esque, it isn’t a connection I would have drawn if it wasn’t plastered all over every review and summary I have seen of The Song of Synth so far.
I’ve never read William Burroughs. We can talk about that some other time.
But I’m sure you get the picture those comparisons are trying to paint. The Song of Synth is weird. It is interesting. It contains mind-altering drugs. It wants to be cult when it grows up.
“The subway was packed and Markus found himself crushed against the window opposite the sliding door. Ten years already.
“Karen screaming in the bathroom. The Potemkin Crew. The guys, the compadres, the friends. A strange feeling of old-fashioned nostalgia swept through his body. Sehnsucht. He recognized the first symptoms of Synth withdrawal. The melancholy. The regrets. The illusions of the past. Sentimentality. Self-pity. A longing for nineteenth century poetry.”
Just like the majority of P.K.’s books, it is guilty of casual German use. Huh.
I almost didn’t read The Song of the Synth because the digital copy I was sent for review had massively annoying formating errors. Every second line was only two words long. It was jarring, and there were no section breaks. So when the story jumped from perspective to perspective in the final section of the novel, I didn’t know if the scenes were meant to melt together or if a missing paragraph break would have signaled the change and made for a more coherent experience.
But one night I couldn’t sleep. One night I wanted to read something short, and my ereader said The Song of Synth was 123 pages. The prose pulled me in—economical, sharp, rhythmic—as did the masterful way in which Doubinsky switched between scenes in Markus’ past as a hacker and his present as an indentured hacker hunter.
The medium for these smooth, often overlapping, transitions is Synth, a drug that layers hallucination on top of reality. These hallucinatory layers sometimes take the form of a memory, re-lived or a movie soundtrack only the narrator can hear. Because re-living the past was a function of Synth, nothing felt info-dumpy. Past, present, future, and daydream flow seamlessly into one, painting a fairly complete picture of Markus’ shitty life.
Markus is addicted to Synth because his life is shit. He betrayed his friends to the police to keep his girlfriend out of jail. To keep himself out of jail. He wears a tracking anklet. He is trapped. He is miserable. He thinks a lot about sex.
“Illusions to fight other illusions. The ghost of freedom against the ghost of oppression.”
The Song of Synth is about memory and how it can haunt us. It is about the addiction to escape, to virtual or chemically induced worlds that help us block out our misery. It contains a dystopian government, hackers, freedom fighters, writers, rebels, literary references, a powerful drive, and well-developed characters. It has surprises. It is really fucking interesting. It is really fucking well written. It was almost a total fucking superstar.
Then I arrived at the book’s final section, in which the plot jumps several years out. Suddenly Markus was almost unrecognizable, suddenly there were subplots with a former buddy and some archaeologists and Alexander the Great and music therapy. Suddenly all the interesting stuff about No Where, a secret rebel sub internet where X-Men characters are covers for freedom fighters was over. Never mentioned again.
There was so much in this book—so much I wanted to follow down that driving plot in a Synth-induced haze, so much I wanted to hear more about— but that last jarring section disrupted the magic, prematurely stopping the upswing of a really satisfying crescendo and leaving me feeling like the beginning of a really awesome book and the end of a slightly less awesome book had been pasted together. And what the fuck was that stuff about Alexander the Great? Totally under-developed is what it was.
The Song of Synth is a book that wants to be cult when it grows up. But the problem is, it never quite manages to come of age.
Three out of five cowbells.
Rating translation: Decent, recommendable, interesting, but doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Where I got it: Sent by Talos for review
Where you can get it: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository