Mark Jacobson
Language: English Release: 1991
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 356
Genre: Fiction ISBN: 0802135390

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Nicholas Driscoll

Gojiro originally came out twenty years ago, and shortly after its release, perhaps within even within the first year it came out, a considerably younger version of myself discovered the book and, being even as a child an enthusiastic consumer of all things Godzilla, excitedly initiated what was probably my first interlibrary loan in order to secure the mysterious book. The unorthodox premise—a sentient, depressed, giant radioactive lizard and his friend, a human boy, have adventures on a wacky island and try to make a movie together—sounded promising to my addled junior high mind. I wasn't a huge reader back then, but I gave the book a good go of it, marshalling through about 50 pages of what was probably the most unusual storytelling I had ever encountered up to that point. Everything in the book was just so odd, from rubber volcanoes to ancient lizard ancestor minds that wax poetic about the “Evoloo” and the transcendental “bunch and beam.” I hated the overwrought slang first-time novelist Mark Jacobson invented for the book as well, and found very little substantive story to hook me. The central relationship between Komodo, a Japanese man-boy, and the titular monster reminded me of the old Jack Kirby comic Devil Dinosaur, but not in a good way. It seemed artificial and forced. The only thing I really liked was the absurd titles Jacobson dreamed up for Gojiro's movies-- Gojiro vs. Dungeons and Dragons Freaks in the World under the Bed, Gojiro vs. the Depthless Society Beast in the Achromatic Casino. In short, I wanted to read those stories, not this one. In utter frustration, I gave up and sent the book back.

So I guess you could say this review was twenty years in the making. This time, I bought my own copy. Now, with a great many more books lodged away in my reading memory, and a degree in English literature stuffed in a box somewhere, I have the sophisticated mental faculties and sensitive, superior ability of expression to render a multi-faceted, probing literary analysis of the overall themes and qualities of this fascinating narrative extravaganza.

How to put it succinctly?

My opinion hasn't changed much. Gojiro just isn't very good.

But perhaps beginning with a brief explanation of the story would help. Considering the way off-beat narrative, a coherent summation is a challenge, but here goes: One day, a monitor lizard was blasted by a nuke, and mutated into a massive, lonely, sentient beast that hides away in a rubber volcano. Soon, responding to his psychic cries for a friend, a Japanese boy thrown into a coma by the Hiroshima bombing awakens in a hospital and crosses an ocean to befriend the monster on the fantastic melting pot of massive genetic change that is Radioactive Island. They form a bond and make a promise—something about finding their meaning in the world. In order to do this, ultimately they embark to make a new movie about Gojiro confronting his creator—Joseph Prometheus Brooks, the inventor of the nuclear bomb. Thus, with an army of grotesque, mentally deficient mutant children at their heels, they journey forth to Hollywood whilst babbling faux philosophy at each other, and find a world far removed from their own, yet are dragged headlong into their capital-D Destiny via a series of increasingly bizarre and senseless events. It's deep, man. Deep.

To be fair, Jacobson's novel is written with panache—the man can slam a sentence together with snap and aplomb, and humorous non sequiturs seed the narrative with attempted laughs. The main characters, Gojiro and Komodo, are complex and evolve as the narrative progresses. Both have intense issues to deal with, issues of loss and personal identity, of alienation and pain, and Jacobson explores these themes in turns with sensitivity and then slapstick. Further, Jacobson is very clever, and clearly loves words, which I can certainly relate to. One example is the name of the Japanese boy, Komodo. Being a man, but with the spirit of a hurt young boy, and a friend of a monitor lizard, Komodo might be the perfect name. The Japanese word for “child” is “kodomo,” and if you switch some letters, you have “Komodo,” with its connotations of oversized lizards, and its aural similarity to, well, coma. It's just too clever.

But sometimes Jacobson's cleverness gets overbearing, or perhaps just too weird. Sometimes his writing tries so hard it becomes, at least to my eye, tortured, or odd for the sake of oddness. Take this line, describing a drive in California: “They went out the Santa Monica Freeway, through the neon and the neon, the money and the money, the Alpha-Beta and the Alpha-Beta, and the Thrifty Drug too.” (pg. 170) The playful absurdity plays out through the narrative as well as the language use, and undermines the emotional impact, or even the cohesion of the story. Nothing seems to operate according to the rules of our world, but the rules of Gojiro's surreal dreamscape are never established, which makes the story groundless. At times, the characters seem sincere—but that sincerity is cut out from beneath by a story that plays out at random. One example—mind the SPOILERS! Dozens of wackily mutated children (called Atoms) inhabit Radioactive Island, and when Gojiro and Komodo leave the island, Gojiro is portrayed sneaking away, trying hard to avoid all the Atoms so he doesn't have to say goodbye. But then, at about one hundred pages into the book, a special Atom is revealed—Ebi, a little girl—and apparently Gojiro just hated leaving the island without saying goodbye to her. I say apparently, because she wasn't even hinted at before. It feels like Jacobson just decided to add Ebi at the last minute, and that feeling is reinforced when it is revealed that Ebi is Komodo's daughter. What, they just left her behind? Didn't care? Oh, and Gojiro killed Komodo's mate. In a fit of sexual passion. And apparently Komodo wasn't very upset about it. Just took it in stride. When Gojiro killed his wife just as she was giving birth to his daughter. No big.

Did I say that I was only giving one example? I'm going to run with this Ebi bit, because it drove me nuts. For some reason, in the book, Ebi is dying. Why? Because she is an Atom. Presumably. But Komodo is an Atom, too, and so is Ebi's mother, Kishi, and both parents manage to live to a mature age. Kishi's twin brother, Stig, doesn't even die from massive body trauma. Logically, then, Ebi, coming from the healthy Komodo and Kishi, should have escaped the deadly effects of the majority of Atoms. But in the narrative, she suddenly dies off screen while still a child, and Komodo buries her. That scene ends with Komodo in contemplation. Then suddenly in the next scene, Komodo has been kidnapped by some baddies, and he wakes up, realizing he's been caught. The way Jacobson portrays the scene, it's unbelievably jarring—we don't even know who is waking up at first, as there was not even the slightest hint that Komodo was being stalked in the previous scene. The sequence ends with an idiotic twist when a minor character who had showed up in one very brief scene earlier in the book appears to save the day with no explanation of how he knew where they were or what happened, and then utterly disappears from the narrative again, never to be seen again. This kind of writing takes no talent, no craft. Writing random scenes with no logic or narrative flow may be “daring,” but it makes for lousy reading. There is no thought there. No tension. With a non-cohesive world, populated by absurd characters with inhuman emotions, I just lost interest completely in the characters as well as the story. I just didn't give a hoot about whether they survived the next page. It came across as lazy in the service of being “different.” (END SPOILERS)

The pseudo-philosophy that permeates the story is just as random as the book, and I mean that precisely. What Jacobson seems to be trying to do is comment on religion in the face of Darwinian evolution. He thus assembles a sort of spiritualism based on a fate created by directionless forces acting in a complex milieu to produce at least a semblance of meaning. Thus evolution via random mutation over time becomes a mystical force, and, in Jacobson's world, to be connected to any kind of ultimate Truth is to synthesize the latest step in the evolution of sentience (Gojiro, with his sophisticated “quad-cameral” brain) with the ancient instinct-wisdom of the lizard ancestors—past and future collide. But if meaning comes out of nothing, directionless, with no guiding force, then all ultimate meaning in life is a construct with no objective basis beyond feeling and personal decision (which is itself based on feeling and desire, rather than objective realities). Transcendent meaning doesn't exist. Cultural meaning simply rises as a means of pushing forward survival, or convenience in society. So as Gojiro and Komodo look for meaning, they have to rely on subjective feeling. And the culture at large in the book builds up a “religion” based on the received pop culture of Gojiro's movies, elevating the lizard as a god birthed from entertainment. This echoes the near-religious fervor of some pop-culture consumers like the more extreme Trekkies and G-fans—indeed, Gojiro uses the term “G-fan” before the “G-Fan” magazine was inaugurated the following year. Actually, the god-transformation here reminded me of (shudder) Godzilla is in Purgatory, wherein the writer seemed to believe that Godzilla really is (in reality) the king over the Catholic destination of Purgatory. But meaning cannot come from nothing; a real force, a real Personality I would argue, must be responsible for a true, objective meaning of life to be even possible. You could say Gojiro is consistent in that the narrative is absurd, and so is the message, but that doesn't make either into quality entertainment.

Still, Godzilla fans will find some occasional nuggets of fun, with references to H-Man (1958), “Radon” (okay, so it's probably actually a reference to the gas), and possibly Varan (1958) sprinkled in the text. At one point, a character also appears with the name “Inishiro,” which seems to be a reference to the great sci-fi director. Also of passing interest, the character of Gojiro has qualities that the real Godzilla would eventually possess in later incarnations. For example, Gojiro has instant healing capabilities, similar to Marc Cerasini's take on Godzilla in his novel series. And Gojiro is here a mutated lizard ala the American Godzilla from 1998. It's entertainment evolution at its oddest—Gojiro parodying and referencing Godzilla, which then turns upon its parody and uses concepts therein to enrich its own canon.

As a side note, my copy of Gojiro was apparently a congratulatory gift given at the completion of some Godzilla-related film project, if the personal messages written all over the inside pages are any indication. Several of the notes even suggested a relation to the American Godzilla movie, including a quotation from that film, but the precise nature of the matter escapes me. If any reader has any idea what sort of artifact I have picked up, I'd love to hear the story.

In summation, as interesting as Gojiro is as a curiosity, and as much skill and craft went into its composition, the lack of story coherence and character interest just killed the book for me. The writing becomes tiresome long before the conclusion, and while I know there are many who adore the book for its unique vision, I found even the absurdity more grating than fun. The charm of an Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth is not there. Gojiro, to me, felt more like a mutated mess than a real evolution of the genre.