Minister Faust‘s SF novel, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, had me laughing from the first page to the last. But the book is also a mind-boggling, multi-leveled allegory of racism and corporate fascism in America today. Dr. Brain is so chock-full of references to pop culture figures and political events alike that it is virtually a roman a clef — except that the people and events it refers to inhabit the Marvel and DC universes as well as the one we actually live in. (There’s an excerpt from the novel here).
From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain presents itself as a psychological self-help-manual-cum-case-history for comic-book superheroes: Unmasked!: When Being A Superhero Can’t Save You From Yourself. The author of this self-help book, and thereby the narrator of the novel, is one Dr. Brain (or, more fully, Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman), a sort of Dr. Phil for the “extraordinary abled.” She has her hands full, dealing with superhero malaise and depression. All the major supervillians have been defeated, leaving thousands of superheroes with nothing much to do. With no target upon which to focus their crime-fighting energy, they are flailing about without any sense of direction, and falling prey to petty bickering, and to various forms of self-destructive behavior. It’s the superhero equivalent of post-Cold War anomie: with no Evil Empire left to fight, there is no sense of purpose, no source of morale. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” has left all the superheroes feeling worse than useless. Pending the invention of a new enemy (which of course will turn out to be “terrorism”), the superheroes need Dr. Brain’s help in order to attain “self-actualization.”
The superheroes signed up for Dr. Brain’s therapy include such figures as The Flying Squirrel, Omnipotent Man, Power Grrrl, and the X-Man. The Flying Squirrel could best be described as a combination of Batman and Dick Cheney; he’s a quasi-fascist vigilante with all sorts of high-tech wizardry in his “utility belt,” and also the multimillionaire head of a multinational corporation which has a lock on the media, as well as the defense and surveillance industries. Omnipotent Man is a doofus-y, and naively hyperpatriotic, version of Superman (he comes from the planet Argon — instead of Krypton). Power Grrrl is sort of like Britney Spears with superpowers (though it turns out, in the course of the book, that this is mostly an act: Power Grrrl, unlike the real Britney, is pulling her own strings). X-Man, the key figure around whom the narrative turns, is an angry black militant with the super-ability of “logogenesis”: manifesting his words as actual things.
The novel’s brilliance has much to do with its exuberant linguistic and conceptual inventiveness. Faust gleefully rings the changes on all sorts of pop culture sensations and scandals, with superheroes as the celebrity targets of paparazzi and gutter journalists. The lives of the superheroes abound in episodes of drug addiction, hidden sexual fetishes, nervous breakdowns, and bitter family disputes — not to mention miscegenation, still a matter of shock and bewilderment, shame, hysterical confusion, and disavowed fantasies in our supposedly “post-racial” society. Even aside from the main plotlines, the book abounds in throwaway allusions to superheroes run amok, and to crazed scientific experiments and neo-colonialist endeavors that leave catastrophic “collateral damage” in their wake. Faust is brilliant in seeing superhero comics as the key to understanding the construction of social reality in a world dominated by the military-entertainment complex.
Faust also mixes and matches styles and languages, with everything from groaner puns (we meet supervillains like Zee-Rox, who can imitate anything, and Sara Bellum, who has terrifying mental powers), to ridiculous dialect-speech (Omnipotent Man’s gee-gosh-Norman-Rockwellesque-cornball-middle-American lingo; or the Germanic accent of Wonder-Woman-like superhero Iron Lass, originally a goddess from the Norse pantheon), to hyperbolic racial invective, to tabloid-style excited overstatement, to hilariously convoluted psychobabble and grotesque mixed metaphors. On one page, X-Man disses another superhero of color as “a slack, slick, loose-dicked, willingly no-self-control, no-zipper tan-man who maks out his mind to convince himself he isn’t a senseless, thoughtless, shiftless, aimless, brainless, oversized pants-wearing, forty-ounce-loving, penis-fixated, self-underrated supreme champeen of galactic niggativity” (page 148, quoted again on page 331). On another, Dr. Brain confides to her readers that “unraveling the bandages covering Kareem’s and Syndi’s psychemotional wounds was exhaustive work, since their bloodied psychic linens were so crusted together they’d congealed into experiential gore” (page 298). At still another point, Dr. Brain asks her patients to consider “how many of the psychemotional barnacles attached to the ship of my consciousness am I willing to burn off in order to sail freely across the ocean of well-adjustedness?” (page 225).
And so on.
But beneath all this exuberant postmodern linguistic play, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain is a serious socio-political novel, focusing on the continuing impact of race and racism in America today. (Predominantly in USA/America, although Minister Faust himself is Canadian). X-Man’s “neurosis,” for which Dr. Brain endeavors to treat him, is in fact grounded in his experience of what W.E.B. DuBois famously called double consciousness:
this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,– an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
X-Man is divided — and therefore unable to attain what psychobabble would call an integrated selfhood, or in Dr. Brain’s terms “self-actualization” — by the fact that, on the one hand, he cannot escape or transcend the perspective of general American culture; yet, on the other hand, he can only feel alienated, excluded, and condemned by that culture. As he bitterly says at one point, he’s expected to stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way; but this is a double bind, because the American Way is in fact incompatible with Truth or Justice.
What this means is that X-Man’s “psychemotional” (a favorite Dr. Brain word) torment and dysfunction — amply dramatized throughout the novel’s lurid, often ludicrous pulp plot twists — cannot be understood in entirely personalistic terms. Such torment and such dysfunction have a crucial (and crucially determining) social dimension. This is arguably true of all forms of so-called “neurosis” (indeed, I would make such an argument), but it is particularly evident in the case of racialized American double consciousness.
Throughout From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, X-Man’s double consciousness is narrated to us from a point of view that is absolutely unable to discern it. Dr. Brain, with her forcedly-cheerful self-help philosophy, is an unreliable narrator — X-Man even accuses her explicitly at several points of being an unreliable narrator — to the extent that she continually misunderstands and misframes everything that X-Man says to her. She contextualizes all of X-Man’s complaints as being pathological and neurotic, a result of “insubordination and racial antagonism” (page 27) — even when they are pretty clearly rational. Above all, Dr. Brain diagonses X-Man as suffering from RNPN (Racialized Narcissistic Projection Neurosis), whereby people of color (and superheroes of color) have a chip on their shoulder about past racism that supposedly no longer exists. According to Dr. Brain, X-Man has a pathological need to see himself as a victim, so that he can blame his own failures upon others. Unable to deal with the fact that white people accept him without racism, he has a compulsive need to act out in order to arouse their hostility towards him, so that he “prove” that racism still exists, allowing him then to act aggrieved and to play the victim.
So the narrating voice of From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain reproduces what has become the dominant ideology of our day: the claim that “we” are “beyond racism,” and that (as Dr. Brain herself puts it) “legislation and social progress have ensured that what was only a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a few decades ago has become a reality for all” (page 149). This claim allows white people to say, in all “good conscience,” that they are not racist (look! I watch Oprah! Look! I voted for Obama!), and that they only care about the content of someone’s character, not the color of their skin. To say this is to ignore all the ways that racism is institutional and socially embedded — it is to reduce the question of race to a matter of individual behavior, responsibility, belief, and “preference.” (This is, of course, the way that neoliberalism treats everything; since, as Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals, and families”). And the corollary of this ideology is to say that anybody who does worry about racism is simply hung up about it. In other words, black people are accused of themselves being racist (for the very reason that they perceive racism as existing), while white people get to congratulate themselves on being prejudice-free.
From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain effectively links the dominant American culture’s denial of its own racism, and self-congratulatory “multiculturalism,” with its therapeutic cult of self-help and self-responsibility. These moves are both aspects of the relentless personalization of everything that is a feature both of today’s global neoliberalism, and of a long American tradition of uplift and self-reliance. (This strain of American sensibility was already satirized by Herman Melville in his 1857 novel The Confidence Man). Dr. Brain’s advice to X-Man is to “begin by recognizing that you are an individual, not a social abstraction. Your destiny belongs to you, not to history, and whatever successes or failures you experience are of your own making. Take responsibility for your own happiness…” and so on and so forth (pages 150-151).
The novelistic brilliance of From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain has much to do with the irony by means of which this sort of psychobabbling drivel becomes the dominant voice of the novel — much as it is the dominant voice in American public discourse generally. As the novel moves towards its action-packed, slam-bang conclusion — as any tale of superheroes must — double consciousness is raised to a vertiginous pitch, as we simultaneously get X-Man’s account of political crisis and turmoil, and Dr. Brain’s dismissal of this account as mere paranoid projection. By the final pages, X-Man is dead, and the creepy Flying Squirrel is firmly in charge. We have witnessed what is basically a fascist coup d’etat combined with a racist mass lynching or pogrom; and the establishment of a new social order in which surveillance is ubiquitous, civil liberties are nonexistent, behavior is severely restricted and normalized, and multinational corporate profits are protected unconditionally. Yet this new world order is presented to the reader by the always upbeat Dr. Brain as a triumph of personal “self-actualization” and “psychemotional wellness,” as well as a set of unparalleled new marketing opportunities. In its offhanded and slyly ironic way, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain both delivers a hilarious roller-coaster ride filled with comic book thrills and chills, and reminds us about what is really scary.