'Black Mad Wheel' is a hollow adventure novel

Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - 5:17pm

Early in Josh Malerman’s “Black Mad Wheel,” one of the characters tells a virtual stranger that there is “a hole in [his] soul, big enough to swim through.” There’s also a hole in this novel big enough to swim through, and that hole is gender representation. The novel races through high-tension action sequences and deeply mysterious investigations, but it is missing a necessary level of respect for female autonomy.

"Black Mad Wheel" tells the story of Philip Tonka, an army-veteran-turned-rock-star whose band is sent to the Namib Desert to investigate the source of a mysterious and potentially dangerous sound. This story is interspersed with a timeline six months into the future, when Philip, now devastatingly injured, is recovering in an Iowa hospital under the watch of Dr. Szands, a sadistic doctor, and Ellen Jones, a nurse haunted by the death of her three-year-old daughter.

There is a lot that the novel does well. It is an adventure story, and for this genre of writing, Malerman’s structural choices and fast-paced narrative style make sense. The constant flipping between the two timelines works effectively; one would expect it to be more jarring or even border on annoying, but Malerman manages to immerse the reader successfully in pretty much every alternating scene. The story is also clearly very deliberately planned out, as there are obvious bits of foreshadowing that crop up as early as the first couple of chapters. It is also well researched, even to a fault sometimes — at the beginning, for instance, rather than simply tell Philip that he has broken every bone in his body, the doctor spends two or three pages listing almost every bone in the human body, even though this medical litany means nothing to the average reader and is more likely to annoy than to impress them. However, there are strands of consistency woven throughout the narrative, like Philip’s military past and his love for his hometown of Detroit.

That being said, its prominent generalizations of women made it hard to enjoy this novel. As the only major female character, Ellen carries the burdensome duty of standing as a representative of women, and as much as the writing wants her to, she doesn’t really live up to it. From her first appearance, it is clear that she is going to fall head-over-heels in love with Philip, even though her only experience with him so far has been watching him throughout his coma. In fact, one of her first interactions with him after he wakes up involves him shouting at her and taking his confusion out on her for no reason. She only really asserts power in relation to Philip, and her efforts are usually overshadowed by Philip anyway; her two major points of action are when she gets fired for refusing to administer Philip’s medicine and when she returns to the hospital to save Philip, only to discover that Philip has already saved himself by murdering the rest of the hospital staff.

Ellen does show some bravery in these instances, and she is also a fairly layered character, given her anxiety over the death of her daughter Jean. The problem is that she fits in with the overall novel’s assumption that all women are maternal figures, love interests or both. The only other female characters are Nurse Francine and Nurse Delores, two stock characters who show up in one or two scenes at the most, and Philip’s mother, a nurturing figure who gives Philip her blessing to go to the Namib and who turns up briefly sometimes when Philip is thinking of home. Everyone is either a nurse, a mother or a girlfriend, and they all exist only tangentially to a male figure, either Philip or Dr. Szands. Even the culmination of Ellen’s personal conflict — her interaction with the ghost of her daughter — takes a few paragraphs at most, and isn’t granted so much as a dramatic chapter ending, in a book that takes dramatic chapter endings wherever it can find them.

The male characters exercise more power, but even they are not overwhelmingly developed. Philip himself has only generic past experiences: He had a happy childhood with a passion for the piano, and he often thinks fleetingly on his time in the army but seldom reflects on any concrete experiences to help the reader imagine what the army was like for him specifically. The new acquaintances he makes on this mission — historian Greer, photographer Stein and demoted general Lovejoy — are memorable, but Philip’s bandmates are so interchangeable that it is hard to garner too much sympathy when one of them goes missing in the Namib. This is the event meant to galvanize everybody into action and propel the reader to keep going to find out if Ross is OK, but it more simply prompts the question, “Which one was Ross again?”

In short, the novel doesn’t earn the level of gravity it assumes. It’s fast-paced and built around a really interesting idea, but in order to really prompt the reader to care about the action and to think about some of the issues it confronts, it could have benefited from some more attention to character development. It doesn’t help at all that the women of the novel are only depicted as being adjacent to the men, not to mention nonexistent in the army and in the music industry; the story does take place in 1957, but assertive and independent women have existed in real life since long before then. The novel would be a fun and interesting read if its approaches to character development and female representation were less of an issue, but it is difficult to see too much around these things as they stand.