– Billy Karlsson
I seem to have a penchant lately for choosing books that make my head explode. First it was Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat by Andrez Bergen, then came The Office of Lost & Found by Vincent Holland-Keen.
I now add Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke to the list, and apart from the rather messy cleanup required of repeated head explosions, I must say I am quite enjoying the stepped up game these authors have been bringing into my reading world.
While at an artists’ retreat, our unnamed narrator, an author (is he or isn’t he Declan himself?), is visited by a man calling himself Billy Karlsson, which just happens to be the name of a character in one of the manuscripts the author has long since set aside. And while it’s all well and good that the author has moved on to a successful career writing comedic crime novels, Billy complains that he’s been stuck in limbo the past five years and would like very much to move the show along toward being published.
Not only that, Billy is no longer satisfied with his original incarnation and has some suggestions on which way his story should go. Bemused by this person who has taken on the persona of one of his characters, the author patiently explains that as a new father and somewhat successful author he’s in a much happier state of mind than he was when he initially drafted Billy’s dark tale of a hospital porter performing euthanasia on elderly patients, and as such isn’t really sure he can recapture that vibe… or that he wants to.
Billy’s persistent, however, and oddly charming, eventually convincing the author to get on board with the revisions. In fact, Billy offers to help things along by contributing more than just ideas, he’ll take over the rewrites of the ‘novel within the novel’ that his character was writing in the initial draft. And with that, Absolute Zero Cool starts a slow burn that ultimately builds to a literally explosive conclusion.
On the surface, the book offers the relatively straightforward, if unconventionally presented, stories of two men struggling to make sense of the women in their lives and to sort out whether the role of being a father – and the emotional and financial responsibility that comes with it – hinders unfettered creativity. Beneath the surface, however, Absolute Zero Cool represents a sneak peek inside the head of an artist fighting with his muse, struggling with the inherently conflicting impulses of humans to be both creative and destructive, and provides a devastating look at the stress and psychological demons which can result from such struggles.
If you’re looking for a book to casually read while waiting at the doctor’s office or to provide you an offhand chapter or two to page through before bed, well, stay the hell away from this book. It’s not a passive experience. Quite the contrary, Absolute Zero Cool is a novel that gives the reader no quarter, demanding that you keep up with the increasingly complex philosophical debates and psychological chess game occurring between the author and Billy, whose respective revisions to the text – and outlook on life – are clearly on a collision course. And when that collision occurs, it will leave you shaking your head (after you’ve cleaned up and reassembled the exploded bits) at Declan Burke’s mastery of language and storytelling skills.
Wickedly sharp, darkly humorous, uncommonly creative and brilliantly executed, Absolute Zero Cool is unquestionably absolutely cool.
Absolute Zero Cool is available from Liberties Press (ISBN: 978-1907593314).
PS – Be sure to check out Declan’s guest post, All for the Sake of Entertainment.