A pot-addled King Charles exiled to an orbital space station of English expatriation. The ambitions of a life-extended, degenerate sex magician John Dee. A former Soviet scientist turned synthesizer of drugs distilled from human clones. Twelve sacred prostitutes. Alien entities from Sirius in Egyptian god masks. A crippled guerilla reality TV reporter. The hidden delegitimized child of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, rescued from death in the wreckage of a Paris tunnel. And last, but not least, the malevolent spirit of Jack the Ripper himself.
If this cast of characters seems intriguing or confusing, it is both. Meat Puppet Cabaret is an exercise in obscuring logic, feints and half-revelations, and keeping the reader perpetually disoriented, left to put ill-fitting puzzle pieces together into some semblance of a story. Avant-garde science fiction on the order of William Burroughs, Steve Beard crafts a tale from inside a near-future British Interzone, one as lurid and discomforting as any Beat junkie dystopia.
Told in fits and starts with a confused jumble of perspective, narrative devices, and points of view, easily the first half of the novel is a hypertextual leap through causal links with little frame of reference. That the parts do finally come together into a sort of oversaturated synthesis is a testament to the payoff that such successful sleight of hand is capable of, but it depends largely on the reader being able to keep up or even maintain interest in the process.
Beard does an admirable job of both teasing and titillating to encourage the turning of the page, but the picture remains obstinately blurred for so much of the journey that mystery can easily give way to frustration. Meat Puppet Cabaret is truly a particular type of book for a particular kind of reader — namely, one that already enjoys experimental fiction. Plunging headlong into the form, it’s not for beginners.
At the core of the book is Beard’s interest in tackling the Jack the Ripper mythology, indicated by his introductory quote from comic book author Alan Moore of From Hell fame, stating that the fascinating aspect of taking on the character is being able to weave one’s version into his mythology. However, rather than tell a Ripper story in 19th century garb, Beard fictionalizes a theory of the past by accelerating Jack the Mack into the future, revealing him to be a psychosis, a program of hypnosis that transforms innocents into murderers in order to carry out the amoral plots of the cryptic John Dee. That Beard casts Jack as a mere unstable tool is fitting, because in actuality that aspect of the story gets swallowed up by the environment and veils of the world Jack is brought into in Meat Puppet Cabaret.
There’s a savage wit applied to Beard’s hypothetical future, not least in that it’s based on a UK which has demolished both aristocracy and democracy in favor of an Islamist state under the revolutionary direction of Prince William, whose investigation into his mother’s death leads to a fanatical conversion to Islam. There’s something ghostly and tangible about the current global political environment in this future, but Beard keeps it just out reach, commenting without really taking a stand.
At any rate, timeframes become problematic in this book, as all of the background takes place off-screen, relayed in bursts of exposition and narration scattered throughout its pages. Beard’s hop-scotching through narrative devices only reinforces this postmodern view of an exploded culture, and the memories and allusions of characters span the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries in a way that never gives the reader a clear purchase.
By its very nature, Meat Puppet Cabaret challenges the notion of story. Its chapters are broken up into digital notations of a transcript. When the time comes to give the reader insight into the metaphysics of the magical rituals that drive the action, Beard does so in the form of a context-less exchange between a Dominant and Submissive engaged in S&M play — a scene that remains lurid despite being delivered entirely in dialog presented in script form. And, of course, as perspectives shift from point to point, the facts change as well, making everything a hallucinatory experience.
More than just frustrating attempts at explanation, as with similar shattered-narrative media, the fun is in playing the game to its conclusion (and it’s no mistake that Beard uses video game script as one of the intermittent devices here), so giving away the linear events would strip the book of its ultimate value. Like many word puzzles, the solution is its own reward, beyond any larger meaning or message. But rest assured that if such games appeal to you, Beard delivers a bizarre, complex, and decayed puzzle to solve.