Review: Subcutanean

This review contains spoilers.

It’s hard to know what to do with Subcutanean, a procedurally generated horror-ish novel from interactive fiction writer and game designer Aaron A. Reed. The novel’s schtick is that every copy is unique, thanks to some clever programming, which makes discussing the text itself in any detail a venture of limited value, given that no two people will have the same experience with it. That leaves the circumstances of its production the most fruitful avenue of investigation – but I’m not sure how much light they actually shed on the novel’s core themes.

Our protagonist is Orion, a somewhat disaffected college student struggling with his sexuality, especially his attraction to his best friend Niko, who does not reciprocate that attraction. Once upon a time, Orion and Niko discover a staircase beneath Orion’s bed in their shared hundred-year-old house, leading to a huge and hitherto unknown basement. Doors lead off this room, doors opening onto long empty corridors in aggressively 70s décor (beige carpets, wall sconces, fake wood panelling). There are stairs, too, delving impossibly deep into the ground, and, further down, stranger oddities of architecture: vertical corridors, mazes of miniature corridors accessible only by crawling, empty swimming pools with ordinary doors at the bottom.

Orion and Niko dub this strange underworld Downstairs. As we find out later in the novel, Downstairs is a place where things are multiplied: architecture, emotions…people. Possibilities. In fact there are countless Nikos and Orions down there, each pair slightly different, connected to each other by tenuous threads of probability and synchronicity.

So the possibility space of Downstairs reflects the possibility space generated by Subcutanean‘s master text; which is to say that seeing only one version of Niko and Orion is analogous to reading only one version of the novel. Or that the vast branching spaces of Downstairs are analogous to the thousands of possible permutations there are of Subcutanean.

This is interesting largely because I have a pet thesis on the subject of novels with creepy houses in (House of Leaves, Gormenghast, Rebecca). Architecture and text are both things that we generally experience as rational: we live in architecture, we don’t really expect it to intrude upon our notice suddenly, to threaten us; equally, we in the West live increasingly in text – email, Whatsapp, Twitter, newspapers, road signs, training manuals, ingredient lists, menus. Further, in the Protestant ideology from which Anglo-American culture as it is today has largely sprung, the Word is sacred, it is the medium through which the individual experiences God. So it’s interesting that a disturbance in the rationality of architecture is often accompanied by a disturbance to the rationality of the Word, whether it’s House of Leaves‘ non-standard textual formatting or the heightened, overwritten prose of Gormenghast. Or the phantoms of possible texts that haunt each single copy of Subcutanean, undermining the singular authority of the Word. This is all, I think, part of the postmodernist project of deconstructing what we understand of narrative and textual authority, with a side helping of destabilising our conception of space which I need to think more about.

Thing is, though, Subcutanean is less interesting as an actual novel than it is as a concept. It explicitly asks us to read Downstairs as a literalised extension of Orion’s psyche, which…okay, but I don’t see a lot of resonance here? Like, what is the point this metaphor is making? That Orion is a lost soul wandering down the distorted corridors his mind makes of his relationship with Niko? Fine, but it’s not very original. Actually I think a major problem I have with this reading is that Orion never struck me as a complex enough person to justify all this weirdness. The house is much more disturbing a presence than either of the human characters, so it’s hard to read its sprawling vastness as the subjectivity of one poorly-characterised college student. As an explanation for what’s going on here, it diminishes the immense power of Downstairs and thus of the novel itself.

There are a couple of other things I thought my copy of the novel, at least, fluffed, especially towards the end, but since I’m not sure whether they’re repeated in other copies there doesn’t seem to be much point describing them. They are specifically character beats, though, reactions to events that don’t have the resonance Reed tries to ascribe to them.

In some ways I think Subcutanean would have been a better novel if it had not made the building-as-psyche connection quite so explicitly; if we’d been left to draw our own conclusions about what’s going on Downstairs. (As it were.) As a metaphor it speaks for itself; I don’t think we needed the explicit psychodrama on top of it? Had Orion’s struggle with his feelings for Niko remained subtext instead of text we might have read it subliminally within the irrationality of Downstairs. Instead, the whole thing is somewhat…overexplained.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad novel. Actually Downstairs is pretty disturbing (I dreamt about it last night, after re-reading the book for this review) and there are a few moments in the novel that are deliciously chilling – when Orion and Niko become aware that there’s something other than them moving about in the labyrinth. But there’s a disconnect between its unusual method of production and its thematic core, which is a shame, because it makes the former feel more gimmick than innovative experiment.

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