Book Review: The Men Inside, Barry N. Malzberg (1973)

(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Caveat: If a perverse (and Freudian) metafictional (and literary) retelling of Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby’s Fantastic Voyage replete with filmic flashbacks does not intrigue you then stay away….

There are few SF authors who utilize metafictional elements as gleefully and effectively as Barry N. Malzberg.  Beyond Apollo (1972), his masterpiece, is a labyrinthine sequence of 67 short chapters of a novel written by the main character who may or may not be recounting real (imagined?) events.  While in In the Enclosure (1973) the excruciating paranoia that permeates the pages and the impossible escapes that transpire, recounted as if they were entries in a diary, could indeed be generated by an external force—the exact nature of which is unknowable—implanting memories.  Revelations (1972) was entirely comprised of a sequence of documents (interview transcripts, diary fragments, epistolary fragments) from a desk drawer arranged chronologically.  And in The Men Inside (1973) Malzberg uses “filmic flashbacks” (i.e. flashbacks from the life of the main character described as if they were documentary films viewed by an audience) and then reveals that no such films exist but are simply the manner in which his character “views” his past.

Some readers–for example, those who detest SF influenced by the radical experimentation that characterized non-genre literature in the 60s/70s—might dismiss these stylistic techniques as pretentious literary “gimmicks.”  I would argue that in each novel mentioned the technique is an integral part of the vision (in all its layered complexity) that Malzberg wishes to conjure.  He is in complete control of his narrative.

Blount, The Men Inside‘s young and virginal anti-hero, desperately wants to view his past through the lens of idealism espoused by the Institute.  The interspersed pseudo-propagandistic filmic moments offer him an opportunity to re-imagine his past in a form that, at first glance, is real.  And it is the vision the Institute wants the public and its pawns to consume.  Blount clings to the pipe-dream that a camera cannot lie…  But Blount, like the reader, knows that such retellings are merely wishful phantasms.  A much more perverse and sinister reality exists amongst the darkness of the internal organs and the within the deranged minds of these Messengers, and combined with Malzberg’s playful “tour guide present tense” narration (25) the brew verges on fantastic.

Recommended for fans of literary/New Wave SF.  All those who are squeamish and prude, beware!

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

In medias res, folks, here comes Blount.  He is on the run and full of fun, looking for a follicle of cancer.  Consider him if you will, if you must: his indignity, his power; he is twenty-two years old at this time, still and always-to-be virginal, sliding through corpuscles and stripes of intestine like a beetle, scuttling through all the fields of darkness (9).

The Institute recruits poverty stricken boys from Downside, where all the poor reside, to be proponents of the new religion.  A religion of healing, a messenger of the faith…  Or, at least, that is the message official propagandistic stance.  In reality, only the young can tolerate the rigors of the process—a process that shrinks you to a microscopic size so you climb up the anus of your ultra wealthy patient (the only ones who can afford such treatment, of course!), and with your phallic lance slash out the cancer.  Better get out in time or else when the projector has reached its time limit the messenger will expand and expand and the body in which you are swimming and lancing will explode….

Blount is one of these select few up to the job.  His father, who gambles his little money away on the horse races, hands him over to the Institute for the recruitment bonus.  Blount finds his earlier life so repulsive that he “views” it through a filmic lens, editing, manipulating, implying via images the true state of things.  He imagines that people will want to see his struggles, you can even buy souvenirs: “there are refreshments available at a modest cost in the lobby to keep you occupied, refreshments and souvenirs of Bount’s occupations as well as your amusement and amazement” (40).  He  unsuccessfully recasts the imagines of his early life in the way the Institute wants them to be.

The filmic portions are introduced, “see Blount years earlier: there he is in Downside.  The travelogue has shifted from guided tour present tense to films of the past, to take you back personally to that wonderful and remarked upon year of 2017, a year never to be forgotten” (25).  Downside too is described as a construct set moving from the macrocosmic cosmic to the microcosmic (remember, we are going INSIDE), “here it is: four square miles across, five hundred feet into the air in a series of uneven surges, and deep, miles and miles down to the gray center of the Earth.  Multicolored haze shifts through this landscape: deep in this haze can be seen staggering forms, machinery pumping, idle zephyrs chasing paper and dust about […]” (29).  Malzberg admits that Downside is insufficiently described in “sweep-shots which may indicate only the ineptness of the director…” (33).  Regardless of Blount’s imagined filmic portrayals, the Institute promises great things.  A way out of Downside.

But there side effects to the projector.  Queue the theme central to so many of Malzberg’s visions: the dehumanizing effects of the increasingly mechanized world.  The projector not only decreases the size of your entire body but removes all sexual ability.  Although he might climb into his patients with his phallic lance jabbing this way and that in order to prolong their lives, i.e. the lives of the very wealthy, his own life is transformed.  The other power in the world other than the Institute is the Arena, a stadium, a palace of sin, the place where decaying Priest machines reside.  And it is to one of these metal confessionals where Blount pours his grief: first, the mantra, “Yes.  I have readiness to confess and be blessed.  I have learned the four causeways of cancer.  I know its lesser and greater pathways, its colors and symbiosis.  I have learned, now, the seventeen manual and forty-five automatic means of incision, I have learned the filaments, mitosis and the scatter of cells […]” (59).  Second, the true emotional toll, “They lied to us.  All of them lied to us” (62).  There is no religion of healing, rather, the projector dehumanizes the messengers who have given up so much to save only the wealthy.

And Blount is transformed, “All of my life I was maimed, blasted, burned, sullied and profits were turned off these deprivations now they have taken me from Downside and told me of a future—but I do not want a future” (65).  Blount no longer wants to heal, he wants to kill.   Blount plots and plots, all the while his daydreams and impotency and fantasies eat away at his sanity.  And to make it worse, all those cinematic reminisces about the Institute making films about his struggles (as if they are unique and educative) are delusions: “Blount by believing that his life is under constant observation for a paying audience, has managed to make himself feel important, although desperate.  Instead he feels them tearing, ripping, opening up huge gashes on his life and sensibility” (78).

…and his old millionaire patient Yancy, spouting his religious mumbo jumbo and spewing hatred at the young man who entered his body and cured him of his cancer, lies weak on the bed.  All Blount needs to do is turn on the projector and climb inside and with his lance jab into the tender area where the cancer recently was and end Yancy’s life once and for all.

(Uncredited cover for the 1976 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

For my article on Barry N. Malzberg’s Astronaut trilogy [here]

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Men Inside, Barry N. Malzberg (1973)

        • Ah, I’d hope my these are “metafictional masterpieces” might prove more of an intensive…

          There is no one like Malzberg. You should give Beyond Apollo or Inside the Enclosure or Revelations a try (or this one!).

            • Well, by squeamish I meant, the two or three “and then Blount crawled into Yancy’s anus and then darted around in the dark coils of the intestines” moments…. I mean yeah, he could go in the mouth but then Malzberg couldn’t evoke all his strange Freudian sexual references.

            • Well, in THAT case… 🙂 No, that doesn’t sound so bad. And Freud had nothing to say on the subject of transdermal nanobots (although I’m sure he would, if he could), so I can understand Malzberg’s choice of entry.

      • There is also some explicit sexual content — again, not a book I’d give to a 13 year old starting to read SF but it really shouldn’t bother the rest of us… I think the most substantive critique that can be leveled at Malzberg is the repetitiveness of his thematic material: the quest for the truth where the truth is unknowable, mechanization of man results in the corruption of man (the space agency is an instrument of this change, and so is the Institute in this novel)…

      • But, his lyricism….. and inventiveness…

        “here [Downside] is: four square miles across, five hundred feet into the air in a series of uneven surges, and deep, miles and miles down to the gray center of the Earth. Multicolored haze shifts through this landscape: deep in this haze can be seen staggering forms, machinery pumping, idle zephyrs chasing paper and dust about […]” (29)

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