The Survivor is like no other novel by transmedia triple-threat writer Gregg Hurwitz. Triple-threat because Gregg is exactly that; he’s already mastered careers in screenwriting, in comics scripting and as a novelist. What makes him one of the leading lights in transmedia however, is not the fact of his trifold career, but how fluently and how elegantly he imports generic conventions from one mode of writing into the others. His comics and his novels are incredibly visual, his screenwriting is folded in with the meditative nature of novels, and the reader engagement of comics.
Gregg’s most recent novel, the Survivor, is a milestone in his own evolution as a writer, and as a transmedia icon. Not only is the novel’s text itself overcoded with a hugely increased chapter count (the Survivor runs some 60 chapters, each a bullet-hole in your consciousness once you’ve read them), but the Survivor is hard evidence of Gregg’s complete facility in engaging the modes of comics-writing and screenwriting in the form of a novel. To understand those modes takes an acumen for engineering. But to make art from melding together those disparate artforms…? That’s just sublime. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that already prerelease, the Survivor reads like something Lit Professors 25, 30 years from now, and later, will point to as emblematic of the kinds of changes writing and society happen to be undergoing currently.
But beyond the macroscopic view of history (and Gregg definitely does evidence as a cogent and necessary voice in the macroscopic), the Survivor stands as a unique work within Gregg’s own developing oeuvre. It’s not the re-urbanization of Batman that he’s currently undertaking (along with artist and filmmaker David Finch) in Batman: the Dark Knight. It’s not the bright, vivid post-redemption take Moon Knight he wrote in Vengeance of the Moon Knight. Instead, through a highly accessible work of crime fiction, Gregg tackles the post-9/11 psyche, and the idea of America in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.
The Survivor is the story of Nate Overbay, the man on the ledge. When the book opens, Nate is on the ledge outside of a bank, about to jump. Nate is a veteran of the Iraqi War, and a sufferer from both post-traumatic stress disorder, and ALS, nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Within a few months the Lou Gehrig’s will collapse Nate’s nervous system, making it impossible for him to grasp a pen. A few months after that he’d need a CPAP mask to breath while sleeping. And a few months on from that his organs begin shutting down.
But the Lou Gehrig’s isn’t why Nate is on that ledge about to jump. Rather it’s a strange mix of the Lou Gehrig’s and the PTSD. Coming back from Over There, Nate’s reliving of his experiences prevented him from reconnecting with his family. Things went from bad to worse until Nate realized his effect on his own family. He self-ejected. And when the novel opens, he is in a place he cannot continue from. He’s lost everything. And he’s prepared to take the one last thing he has left, his life.
There Nate stands, at the beginning, on a ledge, about to jump. Then a commotion in the bank. It’s a robbery. And although he’s unable to explain why, Nate turns to reenter the bank. And successfully foils the crime. His heroism draws media attention and for a moment, there’s the briefest hope that things can get better, that Nate can reconnect with his wife and his daughter and that they can maybe be a family again. And then, the nightmare begins.
Early in our conversation, I ask Gregg about his construction of Nate Overbay. It’s a courageous act on Gregg’s part, writing a character that demands so much sympathy from readers, writing a character that seems so irreconcilable with deep heroism he evidences. Gregg’s response belies his own inner faith in characters’ ability to redeem themselves. He tells me, “I wanted the readers to be there when he fell in love with Janie so they could see how heartbroken he was when he came back from overseas and couldn’t find his way back to this family who he loves. Very hard to paint that—why you’d lose a wife and daughter you love—without making him seem uncaring. But I hope readers are with me. And in an odd way, what happens to him on that ledge, in that bank, ensconced in the block of ice, gives him a shot at renewal. A shot at reestablishing this family that he cares for more than anything else. But he has to do it before his body deteriorates. It’s a tragedy, really, but also a tragedy in reverse—the flaws that brought him low must now redeem him.”
The reconstituting of self-reliance is a crucial theme in Gregg’s writing from V through Vengeance of the Moon Knight through Penguin: Pain & Prejudice and now in the Survivor. But what’s really at stake with the Survivor, what makes this novel standout, is the way Gregg leverages Nate’s personal situation to map out the post-9/11, post-Iraqi War American mindset as a whole. The Survivor reads like a Whitman-esque meditation on the emerging American cultural landscape in the new century, by way of a Hemingway-esque wrestling with the psychology of both heroism and failure.
Nate’s unintended foiling of the robbery, brings him to he attention of a Ukrainian crime boss who threatens the one thing Nate holds more dear than anything else—his family. It’s a bitter irony than Nate is now positioned into acting to save a family that he loves deeply, but is no longer a part of. Part of the vividness of the threat of the Ukrainian mob comes from a unique kind of embeddedness that Gregg himself practices. “When I did a book tour in Moscow, I went to some shady places,” Gregg tells me, “Including a banya that nearly scared my translator to death.”
The idea of embeddedness first entered into the popular imagination during the early days of the Iraq War. Following on from Shock & Awe, we entered into a phase of boots-on-the-ground. Those were heady days. We saw media access to a far greater degree than with earlier wars, to a point where reporters were actually “embedded” with the troops who took action on the ground. It was a high time for left-leaning documentarians as well; many of whom pointed to the perceived negatives of embeddedness—like how the practice evokes Stockholm Syndrome in reporters and basically disenfranchises the autonomy of the Press.
But Gregg marshals a different kind of embeddedness, a purer kind of embeddedness, closer to the kind Hemingway himself practiced. He simply places himself in danger, and uses those psychic resources he develops in those situations as a kind of platform. Rather than report on those events to any kind of realistic extent, Gregg unlocks the emotional resonances of those events, and instead makes art from them.
The experience of his book tour to Russia definitely feeds his construction of the Ukrainian mob that’s hounding Nate Overbay. But in a deeper sense, Nate’s journey from standing literally on the edge of a lifetaking event, to reconstructing the ideal of family, is itself informed by Gregg’s unique take on embeddedness. It’s the deeper story about a mind at work on and at play in the world, and how that mind refuses to simply reel in pain away from trauma caused by its own interaction with the world.
Gregg tells me, “There we were, wandering through these 120 degree steam rooms with giant, sprawling naked Russian men. Many of whom were clearly ‘connected’, as we say here. Oh, and I almost got killed in an underground bar by a giant Russian guy who I based Yuri on. But that’s a story over bourbon. So when I got back and made the crew Ukrainian mobsters I used some of that. It’s good to terrify oneself when researching books. Then it really comes out in the writing.”
The Survivor is an expansive work. Not in the sense that, like a James Bond movie it travels to many exotic locations, but in the deeper sense that it expands our thinking about the world we find ourselves in after 9/11, the world we part the way constructed for ourselves in the wake of that horrific event.
What makes the Survivor essential reading is Gregg himself, and his own inner psychic resources. Gregg’s already mastered transmedia, a new paradigm that fans have always longed for, and that large corporations are now just retrofitting for. But with the Survivor Gregg is in the middle of mastering transgenre—the idea that genre itself can be leveraged for understanding the sociocultural anatomy. In this regard, Gregg joins a very elite list of writers—Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, Bill Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Nick Harkaway—who offer a unique rescue of culture by demanding more of literature.