Escape from the body
A review of Lincoln Michel's cyberpunk baseball noir The Body Scout
Kobo is a heavy smoker, like so many of his predecessors in the crime noir genre. Sometimes he chain smokes, lighting one stick with the ember of another, and the tip glows hot in the murk of night.
In the dystopia of Lincoln Michel’s new novel The Body Scout, tobacco cigarettes have mostly been replaced by “erasers,” anesthetizing disposable vapes that give a quick hit of the hard stuff known as void juice. Kobo doesn't take the juice straight, usually preferring to take his numbness in small doses rather than surrender to the disembodied void altogether.
In one early scene, Kobo offers an eraser to a doctor he’s been scouting for his employer, a Big Pharma-owned pro baseball team:
I offered one to Arocha.
“Those things take years off your life.”
“I hear they can add those back on these days.”
She shook her head, waved away the smoke when I exhaled. “The human body is meant to feel itself. It needs to respond to pain. Send white blood cells, grow new skin, regulate functions. It needs to feel to do its job. You dull it with smoke and it doesn’t know what to do. Just shuts down.”
I didn’t tell her a shutdown is what I was hoping for.
The trope of the drug-dependent sleuth goes all the way back to Sherlock Holmes and his morphine habit. Kobo is a bit like Dr. Gregory House, too, tamping down his own physical infirmity and psychological anguish just enough to solve someone else’s medical mystery. Michel is revisiting old ground here, and he’s doing it on purpose.
Michel is a voracious reader who writes about the craft of fiction in his earnestly helpful newsletter, Counter Craft, and he’s fully in control of the genre tropes he employs in The Body Scout. In the novel, which released Sept. 21, he manages to incorporate the rapid-fire inventions of speculative fiction, the half-lit gumshoe aesthetic of crime noir, and the sheer visceral anguish of body horror cinema. Against all odds, it’s a fun book with tight pacing and a thrilling third act.
The book is also a slice of pure Americana. Kobo is a baseball scout, and he has a hardscrabble origin story in the underground tenements of New York City. He shifts into detective mode after watching his adoptive brother, Monsanto Mets star slugger Julio Julio Zunz, die a horrific body-melting death in the middle of a televised baseball game.
The Body Scout is a tour de force from a student of multiple genres. Michel manages to pull the threads of so many present-day anxieties into the plot: Climate refugees clamor to live, the working classes are dying of a manmade plague called lichen lung, medical debt collectors crush ordinary people into serfdom, and a terrorist Luddite sect wreaks havoc from the literal underground.
This is an ambitious book that’s about nearly everything in our present political moment, but the theme that disquieted and fascinated me the most was its depiction of physical suffering.
Kobo has a bionic arm and a bionic eye, which means he can’t play pro baseball under the arbitrary medical strictures of the major league. It also earns him scorn from the Edenist sect that rejects the advances of the biopharmaceutical industry. Early on, we learn why he needs the prosthetic devices: As a child, he was pinned and dismembered in a subterranean housing collapse that killed both his parents.
I was trapped under the jagged mound for hours. It felt like years. I couldn’t see anything. Could barely breathe. And I couldn’t get out. My arm was pinned down by steel and concrete in the dark. My own body keeping me trapped. When I screamed, dirt rained down my throat …
All I could think about was trying to escape my own body. How my own flesh was killing me, pinning me there. How I’d never let myself be that helpless again.
Kobo is tempted and animated by the dream of transcending the physical body, with all its hurt and failings. Unlike the musclebound prima donnas in the baseball league or the ultra-rich dilettantes grasping for immortality, he is a sympathetic body-hacker. As a reader I couldn’t blame him for seeking out an upgrade to his outdated bionic arm.
On one level The Body Scout is a cautionary tale about what happens when we place the godlike powers of medical technology in the amoral hands of capital. Kobo’s world is a neoliberal hell that rings awfully familiar.
But the novel doesn’t provide easy answers or a cartoon villain. It asks: What would you give to escape chronic pain, degenerative disease, and the ordinary horror of incarnation? If you could transcend your broken body — would you?
Buy The Body Scout at your local independent bookstore or via the Brutal South Bookshop page. If you order via the Bookshop page, I get a commission and another portion goes into a fund for independent bookstores.
In other news, my friend Dave Infante (you may remember him from the podcast episode about White Claw and the Boogaloo Boys) has an excellent newsletter on the alcoholic beverage industry called Fingers. You should check it out and consider buying a subscription to support his sharp, funny, class-conscious work.
Brutal South T-shirts have mostly shipped out by now, but let me know if you hit any snags. Please send pics of those shirts in the wild, including any perplexed looks you get from strangers! I’m still giddy about how they turned out.
Finally, I have a release date for the new album by my musical project The Camellias, a 25-track collection of home recordings from the years 2009-2021. I’ll put the album out on Bandcamp October 5. If you would like to review or feature it somewhere, drop me a line and I’ll send you a link to listen early.