What Makes You Die
by Tom Piccirilli
To see more is to find oblivion...
Tommy Pic’s hallucinations come and go and leave sticky notes for him during his bipolar swings. Coming out of a blackout in an unfamiliar psychiatric ward, Tommy Pic awakes to his missing childhood love, his dead brother, his alive family, and a message from his agent that his latest screenplay may yet be his ticket back to Hollywood fame and fortune. If only he could remember writing it.
Searching out the hallucinations that will write Acts 2 and 3 of the screenplay that will oust Zypho as his best-known work, Tommy goes chasing his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop, the komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut on Christmas Eve.
...This is what makes you die. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
What Makes You Die is a strange book. It’s one of those stories that’s hard to say what it’s actually about. It’s about ghosts, witches, a prehistoric monster living inside a person, and a mysterious self-writing script. It’s about loss, the disappearance of a young girl, mental illness, and a failing writing career. It’s about all those things and yet it’s not really about any of them.
Tommy Pic is a desperate character who seems to be drifting in and out of sanity on the edge of nervous breakdown. He sees the ghosts of his dead family members and friends everywhere, and there is a pre-historic komodo dragon living in his intestines. At points it is very hard to tell just what is part of his extreme paranoia and what might be a real vision, or whether everything is completely in his head. Reality and the fantastical are blurred so much in the story that symbols and metaphor have a very real life of their own, and trying to decide exactly what’s real and what isn’t would probably be missing the point.
Tommy is coping with depression, with a hole that the loss of his father has left inside him, with feelings of inadequacy and despair brought on by a failing writing career, and with the ongoing mystery of what really happened to a girl – a friend he loved – who disappeared in his childhood. When he stumbles across a Wicca shop next to his agent’s office, he becomes involved with a young witch. She sees his ghosts, and the dragon in his gut, and is determined to help him. What ensues is very odd, but leads Tommy through a path of recovery and self-discovery, or perhaps re-self-discovery, to gain a sense of purpose again. It’s clever and entertaining, and will certainly leave you with a lot to think about at the end.
The book is very well written, with a poetic and almost noir-like style, and Tommy’s character is completely honest, right down to the obviously self-destructive behaviour. He can be frustrating at points, and extremely self-obsessed at others, but his story is always compelling. He’s spiralling into insanity but at the same time is capable of some sharp observations about the world and the people in it, making him a fascinating character to see through the eyes of. I also really enjoyed the humour in the book; it was knowing and sometimes a little dark, and it complemented the plot very well. There were some points where the pacing seemed slightly off to me, and occasional sections where the plot seemed to wander off to the side a little unnecessarily, which I thought could have been tightened up a bit. These were only small niggles, however.
Nothing is ever really quite what it seems in the story, leaving the reader to interpret much of what happens according to their own reading. I found what I thought was quite a glaring inconsistency in Tommy’s mother’s account of Kathy Lark’s disappearance (she says that Tommy was with her when she vanished but later seems to contradict herself when Tommy makes an unwelcome accusation). What exactly did happen there? Suggestions of Tommy’s loose grip on reality, a disturbing cover-up, a missed plot hole, or something else? I think I’m leaning towards the first, but with this kind of book it’s very hard to tell, and the story actually benefits from its unanswered questions anyway.
It would be very hard to pin this into a specific genre. Its supernatural elements are clearly metaphors – in fact, the whole story and the concept of the mysteriously written script can be seen as one larger metaphor – but it would be far too simplistic to say that this is all it is. I think it’s enjoyable on several levels, with a strong central character and interesting themes. It reminded me more of short stories than novels that I have read, having that short story quality of feeling like being part of something larger, of being about more than itself, of strong character-focus, and of defying traditional story structure as well as genre. It’s also a very short book, a novella really, and I think it was exactly the right length for the story being told.
This is a very interesting book that blurs supernatural elements, metaphor and reality, creating a surreal and engaging character-focussed tale about a man emerging from depression to find a sense of purpose and belonging once again. Incorporating elements of fantasy, horror, crime and noir, I think it could appeal to fans of many different genres. It might leave the reader with a lot of questions at the end, so for those who like straight, non-confusing narratives, this is probably best avoided. For others, there is a lot to think about and to love in this unique, well-written and surprising book.
Thank you to Apex Book Company for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.