Does It Take a Superhero to Understand One's Own Mind?

In A Little More Human, Fiona Maazel provides a madcap conspiracy involving high-tech medicine and the stranger within.

A Little More Human

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 350 pages
Author: Fiona Maazel
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-04

Fiona Maazel always writes characters that are all too human, held back from their desires by irrational intrusions of messy emotional needs and neuroses. This outlook makes her a counterintuitive but strangely apropos writer to explore the no-longer science fiction subject of human enhancement using cybernetic implants to recover or even surpass natural human abilities. Does Maazel think technology will allow our endearingly flawed species to transcend itself? Her title might be a clue.

A Little More Human features four intertwining characters stumbling upon a conspiracy at the SCET, a bleeding edge medical facility on Staten Island, with a sister facility in Denmark. There’s Phil, who works without distinction at the facility his parents founded and one day wakes up and finds himself blackmailed for an assault he doesn’t remember. His father Doc is hiding dementia while trying to process the mysterious death of his wife, which he partly does through hoarding their possessions. To help catalogue his many objects, Doc hires Ada, a young woman desperate for money to buy her dying mother a miraculous new drug. Finally, there’s Linda, Phil’s wife, whose enormous desire for a child, thwarted with Phil, leads her to conceive with a donor without telling Phil, driving him to anguish.

As if Maazel’s web wasn’t tangled enough, Phil has the ability to read minds. Even though Phil sometimes dresses up as a superhero named Brainstorm, his ability is imperfect and doesn’t feel like a superpower. “It was sad. Mind reading, for Phil, had always been. Isolating, too. Growing up and knowing everyone’s thoughts, Phil had understood just how afraid and insecure people were… The irony had not been lost on him, even as a child. The more you know someone, the less they like you.”

Maazel isn’t at all interested in exploring the real-world potential of mind reading; in her hands, it’s more a reason to ponder how much people truly want to know about each other. Phil doesn’t think to read his wife’s mind to learn her huge secret; he thought he knew her.

Phil starts to lose his equilibrium with Linda’s pregnancy and whatever is left gets blasted to shreds when he’s given photos that seem to show him committing assault, even if he doesn’t remember it. Already questioning how much he knows his wife, Phil’s consumed by the fear he cannot know himself either. Many of the novel’s best passages are informed by the mental handicaps Phil observes as work. Perhaps most interesting is Two-way, a man whose left and right brains exhibit conflicting inclinations and desires. Maazel finds in this case echoes of the Fruedian concept of the stranger within, and Phil finds cause to doubt his every thought.

Maybe you could just never know anything about yourself. Not even the littlest thing. Do I want this woman because she’s hot, or am I merely displacing anxiety onto desire because that is how my psyche processes anxiety? Was it true that the instant you bothered to probe your psyche for answers -- even the stupid ones -- you’d find there were none? Was that why he’d never questioned himself or his decisions? For dread he’d have no clue?

As in that passage, Maazel is at her best when she’s closely following a train of thought, letting the reader see the chaotic collisions of ideas, impulses, and emotions that clumsily assemble into a course of action. This is especially touching when it comes to Phil’s elderly father, whose skill as a doctor allows him to diagnose, but not prevent, his mind’s descent. Maazel shows how within a single conversation, Doc might swerve from professional competence to a childlike fear of the unknown and then seek the tonic effect of past happy memories. Already struggling to remember his wife, Doc must question how well he knows his son when he too is shown the blackmail photos.

However, if the novel is best when the focus is minute, it suffers when the plot is viewed in its totality. The conspiracy isn’t discovered so much as blundered into by the protagonists and brusquely explained by the villains. It’s frustrating that each protagonist is so blinded by narcissism that they can’t see which character is obviously pulling the strings and, as is wont in comic conspiracies, everything could be cleared up if the characters simply talked to each other openly. Some elements feel like their context was edited out of the final version, such as the confusing nature of Phil’s superhero side-gig.

But these are merely the sins of a novel bursting with ideas. Maazel’s willingness to bring in almost any subject and filter it through her characters gives the writing the exhilarating rush of a roller coaster; sometimes disorienting, but mostly fast and exciting. A Little More Human might lose track of the big picture, but the ride is so fun that readers might not notice.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.