[5 May 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
How appropriate that David Ambrose’s premier novel, The Man Who Turned into Himself (originally published by St. Martin’s Press), should now make its reappearance as Picador’s first selection for their new “The Best Book You’ve Never Read” series. Mixing together a tasty mental stew of literary devices and quantum theory, readers should have known that normal space and time could hardly keep this sci-fi murder mystery from remerging in at least a dozen or so possible worlds.
That said, what’s this so-called psychological thriller actually about?
Meet Rick Hamilton, Ambrose’s main character. Smalltime publisher of a few successful periodicals, including the physics magazine Wave/Particle. Husband to the dreamy Anne, who divides her time between amazing sex and organizing charity art events. Father to the innocent Charlie who never raises a solitary fuss about his comfortable suburban childhood. Longstanding friend to partner Harold, who speaks perfect legalese, currently negotiating the buyout of their publishing company for some major bucks. Not even ten pages into the novel, and you might suffer a gag reflex, already envying Rick his perfect life.
Casual readers may be immediately turned off by this modern day Eden, but trust that Ambrose has a plan in store for you, and a twisted one, at that.
Because Rick’s life is so perfect, naturally he worries that “good things were given only to be taken away.” And, ironically, during the business meeting that could change his family’s future for good, he receives an ominous premonition and, despite his lack of artistic talent, mysteriously doodles the eminent death of his wife, a prophecy that he knows in his bones will come to pass within minutes.
Distressed, he rushes from the meeting, barrels through the parking garage gate, and speeds to the scene of the accident, where, just as his strange vision foretold, Anne dramatically dies, whereas Charlie luckily survives. So emotionally overwhelmed, Rick “roared into the blackness of (his) inner universe: a roar of terrifying, primal, primitive defiance,” and it’s this defiance that somehow, unsuspectingly, lands Rick into a parallel universe, one where Anne has survived the crash, but one where Charlie never existed at all.
Of course Rick doesn’t yet understand what on earth is happening, and he’s soon committed to a mental hospital, spitting claims concerning a son about whom nobody in their “right mind” knows. But after a botched escape attempt from the sanitarium during which he stumbles upon a newscast about the assignation of Kennedy, he soon realizes, at least in part, he’s in another world altogether. With this realization, however, the knowledge of Richard A. Hamilton, the Second Him into whom he’s miraculously quantum-leaped, begins to unspool in his brain, causing a rearranging of self.
To rejoin the ranks of the “sane” world, Rick pretends to disappear after a hypnosis session with the blind psychiatrist Emma Todd, instead hiding in the folds of Richard’s mind, plotting his eventual escape.
But nothing’s the same. In addition to Charlie never having existed, turns out Richard himself is a flabby, disingenuous shadow of the First Rick, riddled with horrible, unfulfilled fantasies and political aspirations, of all things. Searching for a way to start a dialogue with Richard, Rick (as Richard sleeps, mind you) overhears a suspicious phone call that suggests Anne is cheating on him. The plot thickens when Rick becomes “The Voice of Jealousy” and compels Richard to follow this Second Anne to a seedy sex hotel, where she meets Second Hamilton for a romp.
As you can guess, from there a murderous plot develops, with an inner voice that wants nothing more than to return to his home world. Under yet another hypnosis session, Rick is finally able to escape back, only to find his home world just as unsatisfying as the alternate universe. Resolved to change the past by means of the time machine/inter-dimensional gateway of his own mind, Rick again elicits the help of Emma Todd, in hopes he can jump back to that key moment at the office building where his premonition first manifested.
At this point, no one’s certain whether Rick is real, Richard is real, reality is real, or the guy’s just plain batty. And that’s the beauty of Ambrose’s The Man Who Turned into Himself. Science fiction often neglects the essential elements of character development for plot devices that focus more on scientific ideas than living, breathing people. But Ambrose hypnotizes readers with his sheer, unflinching ability to capture the confusion, betrayal, and regret that must be present in every possible world. He not only causes you to ‘sweat’ mentally, endowing the Many Worlds theory with metaphysical substance, but also casts a spell revealing genuine human emotion and the struggle to preserve the self in a seemingly random, unpredictable universe—whatever universe that may be this time around.
Could be Rick is just a madman though, and that question may never be answered. But Ambrose does include letters from Emma Todd, who is strangely plagued by the gross lack of origination for Richard’s mental break. One final hypnosis attempt reveals Rick’s intention to travel back in time, a feat that leaves the physical Richard comatose. A few weeks later, however, as Emma confesses in another letter, Rick’s unmistakable voice pops into her head of all places, explaining that he’s indeed alive, and he’s mastered the ability to travel universes at will. The clincher is that Emma tape records her own voice, speaking for Rick, which either means she’s suffering from some form of mass hysteria, or everything her patient Rick has been saying is all true.
Later, Emma confesses that there was something “unnervingly plausible about him”, and this is the haunting lesson of Ambrose’s The Man Who Turned into Himself. The novel plays on our sympathy for those straight-jacketed by the traditional social parameters of mental health; it parades the strutting Don Quixote before readers, begging the question of knighthood; it questions the imagination where theories are developed as well as the reality where physical boundaries are tested.
The fact that not a single individual within the story admits, at least nonchalantly, that Rick could be telling the truth reveals just how deep this accepted notion of “sanity” reaches into our cultural collective, but this may be a point against Ambrose, as well. No one ever humors him for sheer sake of argument. Of course, readers are skeptical just as Emma and Anne are, but the whole point of skepticism is to consider all premises that could contain truth—even if seemingly implausible. Essentially, Ambrose neglects the use of the objective correlative. Call me crazy, but if there’s a pink elephant in the room, someone should at least give a nod in its general direction.
Ambrose’s prose can sometimes become choppy and too removed from normal space-time, but his mental dexterity is certainly enough to transport readers into different realms of mankind’s inner universe. Both his mastery of the first person unreliable narrator and throwback to Bradburian science fiction, in which neither ideas nor characters are compromised, make for an invigorating read.
Reminiscent of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, The Man Who Turned into Himself is not exactly as eerie as Ambrose’s other fiction, namely Coincidence and The Discrete Charms of Charlie Monk, but this revisit is warranted and definitely deserved.
Told with the stern, lingering rationalism of Hannibal Lector, the great question The Man Who Turned into Himself asks is not whether the committed (Rick Hamilton, in this case) are insane, but rather if we are mad for having wanted to believe them. One thing’s for certain, after a read through this Ambrose’s first novel, interested readers will never look at moments of déjà vu and their inner “voice of reason” in the same light again. As Emma Todd herself admits, “For the first time in my life, I am truly in the dark.”