Normal is anything but. Print novels are not what Warren Ellis normally writes (he’s more known for graphic novels and digital works). The setting for the work is Normal Head, the last safe haven for people who have gone mad thinking about the future for a living. What’s normal at Normal is what amiss.
Adam Dearden is the latest arrival to Normal Head, having had a breakdown while working in Windhoek, a remote town in Namibia. Upon arrival he meets Clough, who finds salvation in Danger Mouse, and Lela, an urbanist who won’t touch people, and Dickson, his aide. By the time he meets Dr. Murgu, his psychologist, he’s had his fill of personalities. “He just nodded. This is how the cycle went. Emotional incontinence, and then hyper-focused on the environment but drained of words. No sensory input/output. Human -shaped camera. Two facets of terminal panic, he supposed.” What is meant to be a place for healing wounds brought on by “abyss gaze,” Normal only offers Adam mystery.
The biggest mystery comes in the form of a disappeared patient (inmate). Clough and Adam are present when Normal staff find not Mansfield in his bed at room check, but a swarm of insects. Adam imagines what life must be like for such bugs. To them, humans are “towering blurs of things, terrifying and unpredictable natural disasters on the move.” Not content to let the staff solve the mystery for them, Adam leads a group of fellows to investigate for themselves. What they find is that perhaps they aren’t terrible, moving, unpredictable blurs to the bugs, but that the bugs are a clue to a devastating and towering force at work among them.
“The thing about the future is that it keeps happening without you.” In the midst of an invigorating investigation, during which Clough and Lela have more fun than they’ve had in months, Adam loses the will to live. He knows too much. He’s tried to predict and shape the future and has failed. Does he have the will to try again, in as unconventional a manner as anything possible at Normal?
The short novel ends on a cliff hanger, apt for a book about the future. What is yet to unfold, whether we’re involved in it or not, has a stranglehold on the present, on our reading experience. Ellis excels at cinemographic engagement. (Take patient Jasmin Bulat: “she wore a sports bra that may historically have been white and the ugliest knee-length shorts in the world.”) The story happens in episodic bursts, less than 150 pages divided into three parts. Don’t expect the “normal” dystopia woe. Normal is part warning, part lament, part farce and part silent movie.