Review: The Broken Man

By Rebecca Stefoff

Byers, Michael. The Broken Man. PS Publishing Ltd. (October 2010). £12.00. 58 pp. ISBN 978-1-84863-106-9.

Emptiness can be terrible. Art historians speak of the horror vacui, the fear of empty spaces that makes some artists cover every square millimeter of their canvases with detailed images to blot out the glaring white blankness that lies beneath. In his novella The Broken Man, Michael Byers exposes the blankness beneath the surface of 63-year-old filmmaker Gary Rivoli’s life.

Rivoli shares his white house in the Hollywood Hills with a younger wife, a few cherished works of art, and a gallery of mannequins clad in the costumes from his creature features:

“Thirty-two dead monsters, mounted and stuffed.” Rivoli swims in his pool, has sex with his wife – although “he had been discovering for about a year now that sex was less interesting to him, that its required abandonment was almost never worth the effort” – and sits in zazen, unsure whether his emptiness of mind is an effect of meditation or of “the biology of his aging brain.” Beneath it all, Rivoli’s heart is a lacuna, a hole waiting to be filled – or to swallow him.

The novella opens at the wrap party for Rivoli’s 32nd feature film, The Substitution Man. Rivoli has no illusions about his work, “with its rubber-headed monster, its shrieking, unknown stars, its pale, low-pixel-count special effects.” He does, however, pride himself on getting things done, so when he alienates his “monster man” with a casual remark, he has to deal quickly with the resulting vacancy. He must find a replacement to design and build the monster for his next film, The Broken Man.

Enter Alice White, a monster maker who arrives in Rivoli’s employ with an ambiguous reference and an inexplicable hostility. She crafts a latex Broken Man that profoundly disturbs Rivoli, who hands off the shooting of The Broken Man to a subordinate. Haunted by dreams of the new monster, Rivoli becomes convinced that White is a witch. As his certainty about the world unravels, he seeks support from his wife, an industry colleague, an old Navy buddy, and his Mexican housemaid. Rivoli finds some advice and assistance, but is increasingly alone.

Horror and fantasy sometimes achieve their effects through a device that may be called ‘alienation’, in which the familiar is distorted into something subtly strange. Not in the sense of topiary trees coming alive, as delicious as that may be, but in the way that M. John Harrison or Ramsey Campbell, say, can describe a newspaper blowing along a street at nightfall, making the scene seem at once ordinary and pregnant with unguessable, unspeakable possibility. The Broken Man is studded with such moments, as when Rivoli swims in the ocean at a beach where he had swum as a young man:

The water slipped mercurially over his shoulders and seemed to encase him in a bright chilly sac. With his nostrils just at the waterline he smelled oil and a sulfurous briny stink. Turning around he noted the dark pile of his expensive clothes on the sand, which from the distance seemed an effigy, a decoy. He would wait out here until someone made a move on his pants, then creep up naked and whack them on the head with a stick of driftwood or an old shoe washed up in the flotsam. He had the notion that he was not himself while he was naked and would therefore not be recognizable to Alice White.

Byers has published articles and books about international law, and his short stories and novels have won literary awards. Unfixed Stars (2010, published in the US as Percival’s Planet), a novel about Clyde Tombaugh and the discovery of Pluto, was called “utterly mesmerizing” and “a towering achievement” by the London Times. It’s no surprise, therefore, that The Broken Man is smoothly written. Its setting – B-list (or maybe C-list) Hollywood in the George W. Bush years – is entertainingly drawn. Unfortunately, Gary Rivoli never quite comes alive on the page; the motives and fate of Alice White, his presumed antagonist, consist largely of loose ends; and the story’s conclusion is predictable and underwhelming.

The horror of The Broken Man is that of a man weighing his life and spirit, and finding them wanting. The physical and psychological manifestations of that metaphysical failure, though, are too weakly realized to make The Broken Man a truly effective tale of horror or suspense.

The Broken Man is available from PS Publishing.