In my experience, Nick Mamatas’ novels are not pleasant to read — and I mean that in a good way. He is willing to dive wholeheartedly into ugly situations in his writing and challenge the reader with unhappy observations about the world we live in. I somewhat subconsciously noted this when I read his earlier novel Sensation, but it was really driven home to me in his most recent work, Love is the Law.
Love is the Law is, like much of Mamatas’ work, an unusual mix of genres: depending on how you look at it, the novel is part horror, part science fiction, part domestic drama, and part weird tale. It is, however, primarily a mystery novel — it follows punk rock girl Dawn Selinger as she attempts to solve the murder of her mentor Bernstein. Mentor teaching her what, you may ask? Communism and black magic. The mystery leads her to uncover secrets more horrifying than any supernatural menace.
Though the story is interesting, the real star of the novel is Dawn herself. Egoist, iconoclast, violent, possibly mentally disturbed, she sports a bright orange mohawk and tattered punk clothes but walks seemingly invisible among the populace of Long Island, where she lives with her senile grandmother. With the power of invisibility, Dawn spies into the homes of the island’s residents, observing their lives with an anthropological disdain. A fateful expedition takes her to the house of Bernstein, who immediately sees her but welcomes her inside anyway. Over the months, he teaches her about the writings of Marx, Trotsky, and the satanic mystic Aleister Crowley.
On one of her visits, Dawn finds Bernstein dead, the victim of an apparent suicide. However, the gun was fired from Bernstein’s off-hand, which convinces Dawn that something more sinister is going on. Knowing that the police will be clueless, she decides to investigate the crime herself, stalking and bullying her way through the lives of an eclectic mix of Long Island’s inhabitants. Along the way, there will be victories, defeats, disappointments, additional mysteries — and horrific violence.
As I said, this is not a pleasant novel to read. I had a difficult time getting started on it, in fact, as Dawn is such an extreme character that some of her early choices, even within the first couple of chapters, are so shocking that it was almost off-putting. However, by the end of the novel, a very funny thing happened: I missed Dawn! I wanted to learn more about her, and hear more stories about her, and wanted to hear more of her theories of life.
Dawn Selinger is a spectacular character, and Love is the Law is a supreme example of a character study. In the end, the solving of Bernstein’s murder is secondary to the path Dawn takes to achieve it; however, it is also important to note that the plot (and its denouement) is fascinating. The novel is set in 1989, during the fall of the Soviet Union, and this choice of timing is not coincidental. In the development of the story, many fascinating ideas are expressed, as was the case in Mamatas’ earlier novel Sensation. That isn’t to say that Mamatas is preaching, or trying to teach the reader a lesson; rather, he presents a lot of interesting things for the reader to ponder and come to his or her own conclusions.
I had a bit of a rough time working my way through Love is the Law, but I am very glad that I did so. Dawn’s life, and mission, will haunt me for some time to come.
Now I need to go back and read Mamatas’ earlier novel, Bullettime, as well…