Book Review : Jon Bassoff - The Blade This Time (2017)
Jon Bassoff is one of these writers who has his own "thing." There's no one writing what he writes out there and what he writes doesn't quite have a name. Bassoff himself likes to call it gothic noir, but it's more complicated than that. With every new novel, he incorporates new thematic elements to fit alongside his recurrent obsession. I would call it surreal medico-legal gothic horror noir if it would absolutely need a name, but it doesn't right? His new novel The Blade This Time promised to explore yet uncharted aesthetic territory, but could it possibly live up to Jon Bassoff's robust and original body of work? Short answer is yes, but keep reading to learn why.
The Blade This Time is the story of a seemingly nameless protagonist waking up in a New York city subway station, not remembering who he was and how he came across the bloodied dollar bills and the deck of cards he's holding. Typical, I know. But it gets interesting from there. The protagonist escapes a bleak fate at the ends of subterranean dwellers and makes his way back to the surface, where he ends up renting the apartment of a painter who recently disappeared. The painter in question is a man named Max Leider, who seemed to have been obsessed with a woman he painted over and over and over again. As the protagonist makes his way into Leider's old life, he starts wearing his clothes, living his life and sharing the same dangerous obsessions.
This is very much a Jon Bassoff novel. His thematic obsessions are all there: shifting realities, dreamlike logic, medico-legal science (although it's tackled quite subtly) and it happens within what I call "Jon Bassoff's nightmare universe," a vision of the world present in his entire body of work. Think of it like the world pictured by a disjointed and suffering mind. The Blade This Time is no different, only it focuses on new themes: memory and identity. Again, classic themes tackled by several films and novels, yet cleverly used by Bassoff. What makes The Blade This Time an interesting novel about identity is that the narrator has absolutely no bearing on who he actually is outside of some filmsy, cliché clues. The goal is not finding out who he was, the narrator seems very little interested in his own identity, but who he can be. The Blade This Time doesn't establish an truthful identity, yet shows how it can easily slip away and become an inconvenient gray zone.
It's not the first time I make the comparison when discussing the work of Jon Bassoff, but The Blade This Time reminded me once again of David Lynch. This case is particularly interesting because it reminded me of a David Lynch movie in particular, Lost Highway. It's not a tribute and a ripoff in any way. The Blade This Time establishes its own narrative paradigm quite soundly, but there are several interesting parallels between the two works: they both feature tormented artists; they're both stories about body doubles crossing identitary boundaries, their intrigues feature femmes fatales, crimes of passion, etc. There are other influences to The Blade This Time like the philosophical concept of the eternal recurrence popularized by Friedrich Niezsche, but the core of the novel is a surreal puzzle in the Lynchian tradition. And it's a fun one.
The Blade This Time was my favorite Jon Bassoff novel after Factory Town. It's definitely one of his most ambitious and one of his most removed from conventional crime/horror tropes, which is something I appreciate. Some readers might perceive the lack of "guns, nuns and cowboys" as a lack of grit, but I don't. Sure it's not Bassoff's most violent or nightmarish novel, but he went pretty far down that road already and decided to explore new depths in The Blade This Time. Different depths of the human psyche. Jon Bassoff is one of the most daring and original genre writers we have today and The Blade This Time is one of his most accomplished novels to date.