There’s a slightly troubling element to the making of gritty realistic portrayals of superheroes, which Christopher Nolan’s Batman series just manages to steer clear off. Mostly down to the selection of the villains in those films. However, as soon as you think about the rest of the DC canon, especially the rest of the Justice League members (aliens, mystical princesses et al), a realistic Batman is ludicrous. Realism and superheroes just don’t mix. The concept is ridiculous. But then, how can you portray superheroes, at home in the visual medium of comics and on the big screen, in 300 or more pages of black and white; words in a book. I don’t think you can.
Nick Harkaway’s third novel, Tigerman, is the real deal. His first novels were interesting starters – full of flavour but with way too many ingredients and an uncertain and confusing final dish. Tigerman is a main course worthy of fine dining. A few high quality ideas executed with near perfection.
The title and the branding of the book suggests that we’re in the land of superheroes. While the novel is a fantasy, it could almost be real. Because it is the story of a man and a boy; an ex-soldier lost in the world and a child looking for friendship in a world dominated by American pop-culture – comics, music, film and YouTube. The boy speaks in brilliant hybrid dialogue: “Emote later. Right now: Voight-Kampff FTW”. The story is set on the island of Mancreu. Our hero is Lester Ferris. Mancreu is a fictional island in trouble. Located ‘somewhere’ it is a cocktail of African, Asian and Arab influence. The cocktail is about to blow: pollution from chemical companies have led to semi-regular ‘discharge clouds’ which have some interesting effects on the local wildlife (fish changing sex) and people (brain damage causing language and memory defects). The UN and other bodies have populated the island with various representatives, all of whom play a part in Lester’s life. The big one is coming and the island is to be evacuated. Officially, an ‘Interventional Sacrifice Zone’. Lester is the impotent yet dutiful British Brevet-consul. Single and childless, has befriended the comic-book literate boy (who has no name). He is serving his time as the friendly bobby-on-the-beat. Meanwhile, as Mancreu is effectively a non-place, lawless, there is a mysterious fleet of ships just beyond the horizon. All sorts of illegality might be found on the ships. From extraordinary rendition to whore-houses and more, anything is possible.
Lester wonders if there is a future for him and the boy. Maybe he could adopt him? There seems no sign of a family. They usually meet in a local bar where the boy talks of superheroes and comics. Until the day bar-owner, Shola, is murdered and our heroes are almost killed too. Lester begins an investigation which uncovers more about the island and the fleet than he expected. When visiting Shola’s grave, he has an encounter with a tiger. Later, he discovers that he must create something powerful and frightening (and to disguise his identity so he doesn’t get in trouble with the bosses back home in London) to get to the truth about Shola, and the boy. He takes his cue from the tiger and a superhero is born.
Except he’s not a real superhero. He’s not even Batman. He’s a skilled fighter who uses surprise and fear as a weapon. No real superpowers or billionaire’s playthings. No magic or science. There is a passage about half way through when Harkaway is discussing the philosophy of his hero (and one echoed by Nolan’s version of Batman) that Lester can’t fight the bad guys, but Tigerman can. He can do anything, because he isn’t real. Beautifully observed. There are many myths on the island, such as the eternal Bad Jack, so Lester and the boy create a demon. The international cast of supporting characters (Dirac, Lester’s French counterpart, the Japanese scientist Kaiko, Jed Kershaw from American intelligence, the Ukranian and others) all play their part in what is more like an empirical spy thriller, set in some darkest Africa. Of course, the set-up is pure superhero – the boy being Robin to Tigerman’s Batman.
The key to Harkaway’s writing is the textured depth and imaginative characterisation. It is one of those books who’s character are so rich than by the climax, you feel like they’ve penetrated your reality and you want to keep them close, even after the book is over. Many of the supporting cast are fairly one-dimensional but the two leads are so well-written you can empathise with Lester’s every emotion and smile at the boy’s cultural references. The writing is terrific and the plot is as complex as any novel: fantasy, superhero or familial drama. Which is what this really is. Tigerman might be magic realism dressed up in a 4-colour comic-book costume, but at its heart is story about a lonely middle-age man looking at his single, parentless life, and the boy who he hopes might think of him as a father. It is Lester’s flawed paternal desire that drives him to dress up as Tigerman, not a sense of heroism. There is plenty of that to come, mind – fights, rescues, plans and such-like.
When the denouement arrives, I almost didn’t buy it. I couldn’t decide if Harkaway has been too clever or not clever enough. On reflection: Goldilocks. Just about right. To his credit. There are so many ideas to the novel, and like his previous novels, I kept expecting a stumble. It never came. For example, the island’s overseers are an organisation with a name shortened to NatProMan. I’m sure this is deliberate, hinting at an evil adversary for our hero. But it doesn’t descend into cliché. NatProMan is a red herring. Even the secret James Bond baddie-base isn’t hackneyed and is portrayed with affection.
Throughout the book I kept wondering if the goo-soup of a volcano that had doomed the island would somehow go off and turn Lester into a real unreal superhero with proper fantastical powers. I’m glad it didn’t. Tigerman isn’t really a superhero novel, and only just a novel about heroes, even though it has affections for comics. I never really equated to other superhero books I’ve read. I didn’t imagine Lester’s costume as a comic-book creation at any point (although I might have if my expressed fear had come true). Tigerman is an entire novel about how Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider. Except it turns out that bite has no after-effects. It’s also a novel about the Gwen Stacey decision on the George Washington Bridge (Lester has to make a choice – be a hero or be a father). It is not a great superhero novel but a great novel about superheroes. Real ones.