Title: “Soon I Will Be Invincible”
Author: Austin Grossman
Publisher: Vintage Books USA
Publication Date: June 10th, 2008
Paperback: 336 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No. But there is a fairy. Rude.
“Soon I Will Be Invincible” is a book that I bought “for my boyfriend” for Christmas. In a completely self-serving move, I read it before he did. Pookas are not famous for their patience.
This book initially showed up on my radar because its author, Austin Grossman, is the identical twin brother of “The Magicians” author Lev Grossman.
I have a complete nerd crush on the latter. Maybe one day (February 14th?) I’ll dedicate a post to why I love him so much. Their whole family sounds seriously amazing. There are these two novelists, their mother is also a novelist, their father is a poet and their sister – named Bathsheba (?!) – is a sculptor. Imagine being part of that family and not having artistic talent? It’d be enough to turn one into a super-villain (Oh yeah! Let’s hear it for transitions!)
“Soon I Will Be Invincible” is a book based on the premise that superheroes always have really evolved origin stories and clear motives while the villains remain embarrassingly undeveloped. Doctor Impossible, the novel’s antihero, writes to rectify that situation. One also suspects that he writes out of loneliness. With the readers, Impossible shares his hopes & dreams (in his early years: fitting in, making friends, getting a girlfriend, making a name for himself in the scientific community; in his later years: world domination), and his disappointments (failure at every aforementioned item, the last at a count of twelve thwarted attempts – including “fungus army” and “army of fish” [p. 72]).
The perspective alternates back-and-forth, chapter-by-chapter, (something which I didn’t expect based on my “previewing” of the book on Amazon) between Dr. Impossible & a new superhero cyborg named “Fatale.” The virtue of this is that the reader becomes omniscient, knowing what’s going down on either side of the fight. The basic story is that Doctor Impossible has just escaped from prison and is embarking upon a new attempt to take over the world. We’re along for the ride to see if he succeeds (which, we’re kind of hoping he does… the poor nerd).
What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating :
1. The humor.
The funniest parts of the narrative occur in Doctor Impossible’s chapters. Things might have gone a lot differently for him if, upon one of his out-of-prison stints, he’d decided to give up the mad scientist game, stopped trying to prove himself as an evil genius and started trying to make it as a comedic genius. I hear it’s a hard scene to break into but it can’t be any harder than trying to take over the world. “Doctor Impossible Does Stand-Up.” It’s never too late. If Grossman ever writes a sequel, I think that should be the plot (and working title). You’re welcome, A.G.
Impossible’s humor, as can be expected from a super villain, is wry and dark. I’ll transcribe a few of my favorite passages for you:
The first occurs early on, as D.I. ponders why more and more superheroes started cropping up in the 1950s. His suggestions for the superhero boom include “nuclear power plants, alien contact, chlorinated water” — all reasonable — and the best and most likely idea, “too many people dancing the Twist” (32).
The second is his creative adjustment to the expression “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Instead, Doctor Impossible advises, “When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make acid poison. Fling it in their eyes” (48).
And finally, Impossible gives us a description of one of the only characters in his life that might be described as a friend – or at least an ally. He’s another villain, of mediocre fame, named “The Pharaoh,” whose power comes from a magical artifact that he named “The Hammer of Ra.” Doctor Impossible doesn’t even like him, really. He tells us, “He’d pick up that hammer and mumble a made-up power word, and a second later he’d be one of the toughest villains on the planet. Then he’d yell, ‘It’s hammer time!’ Just to embarrass me. Bastard” (186).
Lily’s origin story is the best of the bunch. She was born into the distant future, when a terrible blight threatens to cause the extinction of the human race. Lily is part of a small group of survivors who send her back in time in order to stop the ecological disaster that caused the blight. She does as she is charged, saves the world, and returns to the future, hoping to see her friends well and prospering. As it turns out, she hates the world she’s helped to save. Everything is loud and obnoxious, there are people everywhere, and everyone she ever knew or loved no longer exists. Motivated by homesickness and heartsickness, she goes back to the past and vows to reinstate the blight so that everything can go back to the way it was. She meets Doctor Impossible and becomes his first and only girlfriend. We learn this all through backstory, however, as Lily is now reformed, she and Impossible have parted ways, and she’s just been elected to a probationary spot on the “New Champions” superhero team.
I’ll admit it (at the risk of losing street cred), I don’t know very much about comics. It was a concern I had going into this. The review right on the front of the book from Wired Magazine says, “every comic-book cliché in this witty, stunning debut is lovingly embraced, then turned inside out.” I was worried I didn’t know enough about the clichés to notice if they were being cleverly twisted. And, while I’m sure I missed some things, I got some things too (and the story was still funny enough to carry me). Some of the characters are obviously modeled after popular comic book characters (Damsel is Superwoman, Black Wolf is Batman, Corefire is Superman, etc) but if Lily is modeled after anyone, it isn’t any character I know. Her story seems -to me, one of the uninitiated – to be uniquely creative and I was glad for it.
3. (Proper Use of) Alliteration.
Normally, this wouldn’t even be something that I’d feel the need to comment upon. After just reading “The Girl Who…” books, however, it was so refreshing to read alliteration that was sparsely used – and even then just to be silly and highlight a trend in comics. Grossman only uses it when he refers to souvenirs in the New Champions’ lobby, acquired from defeating villains over the years: “the oboist’s oboe, the Gentleman’s gloves… the Abomination’s armor” (166). It was limited to one sentence in one paragraph and I breathed a happy sigh of relief.
4. The juxtaposition of science and magic and the subsequent breakdown of that juxtaposition.
I don’t want to put too many details in this section and run the risk of ruining plot points; I just like the idea that science and magic aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive beliefs. What I also like about the presence of magic in this book is that Impossible declares, “I don’t like magic. I think I’ve said that. There are too many frauds mixed up with it” (217). It’s just fun to imagine this as a bit of snide sibling rivalry, considering that the title of Austin’s brother’s most popular book is The Magicians. It almost certainly isn’t, though, given that Austin’s book was published two years before Lev’s.
5. The Language
Every now and then, A.G.’s powers of description shine and he gets the “feel” of something just right. The two examples that I felt the most strongly had to do with childhood. I wonder if that has to do with him or me.
The first comes early on, as he describes students sleeping on a school bus on the way to their first day at a new school. He writes, “Everyone was drowsing or sleeping or staring out the window. I slept a little myself, although it felt strange to be dozing off among all these strangers. No one talked, but there was a faintly intimate process taking place among us, a bond forming out of the shared unfamiliarity of the trip… For all of us, it was the start of a new phase of our lives; a group identity was taking shape out of the rainy morning and the engine noises and the forty-eight dreaming minds” (11).
I’m going to omit the context of the second example but I think the words themselves are enough: “The charge in the air feels like the third act of a play, or the light on a playground a moment before sunset” (218).
This might be a good time to discuss…
What I Spit Back Out:
1. The Language.
Yes, perplexingly, I have the same topic in both my positive and negative lists. Some sentences I loved and some I hated. The attention paid to how each sentence flowed from the one that came before it and into the one that came after seemed inconsistent. There were gems like the few mentioned above but there were duds, too. The redundancy of the following two sentences bothered me more than it probably should have: “I honestly don’t know what happened then. The whole word had iced over by then” (299). It caused me to twist my mouth up into an unhappy (and probably pretty unattractive) grimace.
2. The Shoddy Editing.
I guess this last part wasn’t really Grossman’s responsibility but it always astounds me when errors like this make it past whatever team is supposed to correct them and into print. Each chapter, as I’ve said, alternates between Doctor Impossible & Fatale’s perspective. To designate whose mind we’re in, the chapters begin with a pictorial symbol. When we’re with Impossible, the chapter begins with a miniature ray gun, and when we’re with Fatale we get a mechanical-looking, heavily-lashed eyeball. The final chapter of the novel is Impossible’s but the symbol we’re given is Fatale’s.
In all, “Soon I Will Be Invincible” was an amusing read and there were a couple of moments where it managed to transcend pure entertainment. While there were a lot of things I liked about it and not very many that I didn’t like, there wasn’t a lot that I loved. I would recommend it as a light read but if someone told me they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be pissed at them afterwards.
Finally, so as not to end the post sounding like a Negative Nancy, I’ll leave you with one of the first images that the text conjured up for me. At the beginning, as we’re getting to know the characters and before we’ve got a clear image of them, Impossible asserts,
“When you become a villain you cut your ties and head for the bottom. When you threaten to crash an asteroid into your own planet just so they’ll give you a billion dollars or substitute your face on the Mona Lisa, there’s no statute of limitations. So you have to have the courage of your convictions” (17). Here’s what I automatically pictured:
So, I’m not mad that I read this. I’m not mad that I bought it. I’ll recommend it to my friends, especially those who are into comic books. It’s a great read if you’re in the mood to laugh – but Impossible didn’t quite conquer my heart. I feel a little guilty about that, at least. Poor nerdy Doctor…
Pooka Rating: 3 out of 5 Nibbles