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.

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.

RATING 6 / 10