Saturday, November 17, 2012

I'm Not Sam (Book Review)

I'm Not Sam By Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee (Sinister Grin Press, 2012)

"Right.  That's what we're after.  Realistic and over-the-top, both at once," says narrator Patrick Burke (a nominal nod to author Kealan Patrick Burke) at one point, and the lines serve as an apt description of the latest collaboration between Ketchum and McKee.  The co-writers begin with an intriguing premise and then extrapolate it to some extreme ends.  After a night of passionate sex, Patrick's beloved wife Sam wakes up suffering from a strange case of "selective memory loss and age regression": her personality has been replaced by that of a six- or seven-year-old girl named Lily.

The narrative instantly hooks the reader and pulls him/her along in search of an explanation for this uncanny development.  Most likely the abrupt changeover can be traced to a severe psycho-logical disturbance--either on the part of Sam or Patrick (who's
hardly the most reliable of narrators).  But there's also the possibility of some macabre doppelganger action transpiring (not coincidentally, a "Stephen Bachmann" is mentioned early on): Patrick, a graphic novelist, has just finished illustrating a scene where a character called Samantha has her own brains blown out by a shotgun blast.

Ketchum and McKee wring some darkly comic moments from the scenario (e.g., Lily unabashedly picking her nose in public; Patrick dreading arousal as Lily bounces innocently on his lap), but the authors are also careful to dramatize Patrick's confusion, embarrassment, anger, and sense of abandonment.  The relationship between Patrick and the juvenile but adult-bodied Lily is certainly a complex one, leading to some poignant interactions, such as when Patrick pushes the woman-child on a swing: "It's a curious feeling.  It's like I'm playing two roles here at the same time, parent or playmate to the kid who shouts higher, higher--but then in our quieter moments it's also romantic, like we're a pair of new lovers again, doing the kinds of silly kid-things that lovers do."

The horror here does not work in the same savage vein as the authors' previous effort (The Woman); instead the novella haunts readers with the prospect of the sudden loss/debilitation of a loved one, and shows the severe psychological toll the situation takes on Patrick.  I'm Not Sam can also be easily read as a modern Gothic (note the remote, woodland setting of the Burkes' home), as it demonstrates the terrible and extensive shadow the past can cast over present lives.

A short story ("Who's Lily?") furnishes an immediate sequel, shifting the angle of perspective and ultimately revealing the underlying cause for Sam's predicament.  Ketchum also provides an introduction to the two narratives, one that is indispensable for the author's discussion of filmic and narrative structures alone.  Add these bookending pieces to the titular novella, and I'm Not Sam forms a slim yet emphatically entertaining volume that Ketchum/
McKee fans will not want to miss.

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