(Patrick Woodroffe’s cover art for the 1973 edition)
The Candy Man wanders from place to place in a crumbling mega-city with his sole companion, a mechanical dog named Wolf who comes with a handy handle. Candy Man instigates the lobotomized, with primal speeches and drugged sugar floss tinted with pulverized beetles, to revolution. His reward for turning in those he encouraged deviate from the will of the Deep Machine and their Teachers? Vials of drugs. Enter the hypnagogic world of Vincent King’s Candy Man (1971), an unsettled landscape inhabited by the degenerate remnants of humankind and the arcane workings of a computer program that cannot escape its original perimeters.
Fresh off Vincent King’s short story “Defense Mechanism” (1966), I tracked down a copy of his second novel. Occupying a similar space as “Defense Mechanism” (conceptual breakthrough in a decaying world city), King pushes the narrative into a surreal overdrive. While not “the most demented novel of all time”—Charlie Jane Anders on Vincent King’s later Time Snake and Superclown (1976)—Candy Man operates in the same generalized setting as innumerable post-apocalyptic science fictions, but the vocabulary and delivery feels different, as if it slipped into our world from a parallel universe…
Somewhat recommended–especially for fans of out there 70s science fiction—due to the shear kaleidoscope of ideas that whiz in all directions. The novel is something of a blunderbuss shot from the hip, if you can’t aim, toss a lot of pellets at something at once… King succeeds in creating memorable individual sequences and the overarching formulation of the surreal landscape. But the parts meander around and tire, often as aimless as the novel’s lobotomized looking for a nutrient nozzle.
Brief Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)
“All that pale green-gray…. that crumbly lichen, rubbery and crumbly… exquisite convolutions, beautiful like brains… but so strange” (1).
In a world city of layered Streets, nutrient nozzles, and music “beating synthetic” from the Speakers (4), the Candy Man looks for his purpose and bemoans the lack of a name.* Not the name people call him, but the “real” name given out by the Teachers (whose worship is socially conditioned) at the Rites: “I had a scar myself, but I put it there. I didn’t go to any Rites, that’s why I didn’t have a name, not really. They called me Candy Man, but it wasn’t the same (5). With his dog in tow, he rouses the lobotomized (those that fail the Rites) with the promise of deep revelation….
“[I] FIND YOU THE COLORED BEETLES IN THE CACTUS JUNGLES! I HAVE SEEN THE HIGH SIGHTS, THE GLORIES AND THE REVELATIONS” (6).
….and the evil of the rituals that keep the Teachers in power: “AND THE RITES! The Rites, brothers, they put the evil in us then!” (6). Whether or not Candy Man believes the sermons, isn’t entirely clear. He justifies the orgiastic acts that follow his sermons as preventing the “coming extinction” of humankind lulled into inaction (15). He wanders on, eyes covered, rubbers over his white skin, muting out the world.
Candy Man plays a role–obscured amongst the ruins–in the archetypal workings of a fragmented yet timeless mythology. Myths abound of the The Saver and a Great Robot that must be stopped. He encounters the Boy. And then the Girl. They are remarkably similar. And in the shadows they could be the same. The Boy seeks to kill him. The Girl to study him. And The Potter looks for the perfect pattern. The Fat Man with his mechanized cat knows more than he says. And into the grips of this strange assortment of individuals, Candy Man finds himself enmeshed—and soon discovers his own place in the leaning edifice of the world.
Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)
The Urban Landscape: As was common in New Wave SF, the landscape becomes a symbolic manifestation of humanity’s interior state. As Candy Man learns more about his purpose, the city takes on more distinct form with a beginning and end. Matter Machines, controlled by the Deep Machine, overlay Street upon Street, block upon block, creation as entropy (144, 145). The city marches up the mountains while the Atlantic Ocean, presented as a seldom seen primordial entity, sloshes below. At its crumbling edges, fragments of humanity eek out a living. Those that rely on the nutrient nozzles, dwindle in population (a dystopic program designed to curb population growth)—while the city’s structures expand and expand. Candy Man’s visions of the history of the city give his life shape and place him firmly within a chronology that has lost all sense of time.
Rituals and Fragmented Mythologies of the Past: The final third of the novel unleashes more than one narrative twist. And when it all falls into place and a sense of time is reestablished, Candy Man’s surreal wanderings crystallize into an Odyssean voyage with a distinct end. The characters he encounters (The Boy, The Girl, etc.) are possessed by their own programming—and are but attempts to maintain sanity under the erosion of time. Unusual sequence filled with Earth imagery (WWI, WWII, etc.) suggest forces that play that remember something of the world that is. But all referents are erased by the new layers and layers and layers created by the Matter Machines.
Vincent King succeeds at plunging the reader into a truly alien far future Earth. The ideas are fascinating/intoxicating.
*Vincent King deploys stylistic gimmicks that annoy 1) Random capitalized words (I’ve reproduced them throughout the review). 2) A disturbing quantity of that dreaded ellipsis. While I use it also on occasion, I get the sense that King would use them in every sentence instead of a period (they are more common in his first novel and earlier stories) if the editor allowed him.
(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1971 edition)
(Patrick Woodroffe’s original canvas for the 1973 edition)
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