Does anyone else remember Fallen? It was a terrible movie with DENZEL, smack in the middle of the post-Glory period where DENZEL only did terrible, terrible movies. Which also, incidentally, coincided with the period of my youth when I would see Any Movie At All. My friends and I single-handed funded Hollywood for at least a decade.
Appropriately, many of my high school friends are now out in LA, probably because, if you've seen Fallen, you know how low the bar for Hollywood feature films can go. It was terrible. I remember it for three reasons:
- There was a fair bit of controversy over the fact that DENZEL did not smooch his female co-star (Embeth Davidtz), even though the movie clearly required smooching. I remember this because of a Newsweek article (this is also back when Newsweek was a thing, too) about how this was probably because of horrendous racism (generally) and a deep-seated white-dude inferiority complex when it come to DENZEL (specifically). Probably true.
- The movie is about the fallen angel Azazel who leaps from body to body by touch, which is a pretty freakin' cool premise for a police procedural/thriller.
- Freakin' Azazel - in whatever body - keeps singing "Time is on my side", which, 17 years later, I still resent. Especially (SPOILER) the hammy John Goodman version. Horrendous, horrible earworm, which is a metaphor - I suppose - for Azazel him/herself or something. But mostly really, really, really annoying.
Fallen currently has a 7.0 on IMDB, which is about 6 and 4/5th of a point above where I would put it, honestly. Maybe this is part of the Great Late 90's Revival, but I think it is taking nostalgia a bit too far. Because, again, that movie? Really bad.
So, Touch. Which does not have Azazel, DENZEL or The Rolling Stones. But does, at its heart, have a very similar mechanic: there are people that, for some reason or another, bounce into your body by touching you. Skin to skin contact and, whammo, they're living your life. You? Disappeared. At least, until they're done (bored, finished, whatever), and you get your life back, with a big black hole in the middle of it. And possibly massive credit card debt.
It is seriously creepy. And, what makes this book great? Touch acknowledges the creepiness, debates it, mulls it over, bounces it around a bit... and never, ever says it is ok.
Touch's protagonist is the entity known as Kepler. Kepler is genderless, raceless and featureless - as you might expect a 'person' that hasn't been confined to a single body to be. This is all done with disconcerting ease: as Kepler bounces from body to body to body, the reader becomes increasingly disassociated with conventional notions of 'identification'. Nor does it matter to Kepler: when Kepler is looking for a host, Kepler looks much shallower than skin deep. It isn't about age, race or gender, it is about location, access, health and habits. Touch is as liberating as it is dehumanising. In the eyes of a being like Kepler, we realise how silly we've become. It is much more important to have good dental care.
Touch is also as sinister as it is dehumanising. Kepler is on the run - caught in-between another of his/her kind and an organisation devoted to eliminating his/her kind from the face of the Earth. Simultaneously hunter and hunted, cat and mouse, Kepler's pseudo-immortality is strained to its very limited. This is a high-tension chase book - not unlike something Bourne-ish - in which a very dangerous individual weaves in and out of our 'banal' systems, alternately chasing and fleeing from an all-powerful organisation. There are moments of gasp out loud tension and nail-biting fear, as Kepler - a creature of fluidity and freedom is bottled up, threatened and hurt.
And yet... Kepler is an absolute monster. Again, Touch refuses to pull its punches, and this is why the book is so unbelievably bloody good. Kepler is a vampire - and she/he is one of the 'best' of his/her kind. Kepler brokers bodies - finds people willing to trade years of their lives for cash in the bank. And, again, that's Kepler at his/her best. Normally his/her kind flit around, taking minutes, hours, years of lives - people waking up with decades gone, in strange houses with strange families. It is absolutely nightmarish: a loss of life, control and agency that's almost completely without parallel. "Painless", certainly, but far from trauma-free.
As Kepler runs around the world (and back again), spending time with his/her victims and captors, the debate rages. For Kepler, this is a matter of survival: she/he has a right to live, and live unmolested. But to others, Kepler's very existence is molestation - everything Kepler is and does assaults our fundamental notions of what it is to be human and to have free will. Neither argument, is, of course, perfect - and in the shadowy organisation and body-jumping serial killers that we meet, we see the slippery slopes of both sides. But the events of Touch seem to be the first time in this world where the debate is taking place: where the discussion, and a sort of rough understanding, is reached.
Setting aside the debacle of Fallen, the best comparison for Touch can be found in Claire North's previous book - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Like Harry August, Touch is simple 'one twist' science fiction: a single idea, explored at depth. And, also like Harry August, Touch does this superbly, and with an incredible grace. The idea is spectacular, but its expression is beautiful. Rather than droning on about the 'science' of how a fictional conceit might work, the book instead focuses on how it impacts their lives, loves, and the way they relate to the world around them.
Harry August, however, was a heart-breaking, loveable book about an ordinary person, who ultimately clung to 'ordinariness' (in the face of immortal power and apocalyptic doom, no less). Touch is chillier, and less loveable - essentially the diary of an utterly alien predator, someone or something that lives at perpendicular angles to the rest of us, and - whether or not she/he acknowledges it - is losing the ability to see humans as people. Arguably, Touch is the more powerful of the two books because it is harder-hitting: about survival, not heroism; compromise, not triumph. Harry August leaves you with fuzzies; Touch... a sense of unease. This is a powerful, disquieting, and provocative book that examines what it is to be human from the perspective of someone that no longer is.