book Future Boston

reviewed by Diane Greco

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

For the last month, I’ve been practicing the phrase, “I used to live
in Boston,” but it still feels strange to say it. In two weeks, I’ll
put all my stuff in a truck and head south to New York. I’m prepared,
but after eight and a half years, leaving this city isn’t going to be
easy, for the peculiar reason that I never intended to stay so long in
the first place. Partly, the problem is that the city itself is so
inhospitable to the very idea of settling in. Everyone complains about
the consistently inconsistent weather in the capital of New England,
but this complaining just symbolizes Boston’s single enduring truth:
change without significant difference is the order of the day. Due to
the number of colleges and universities in this so-called American
Athens, a huge percentage of the population is transient; the students
come and go in massive, recurrent waves. The major streets, including
the one on which I live, seem to be dug up only to be created anew
every single summer. And every year, the Boston Red Sox invariably
come out roaring in the spring, only to fade away in August.

Similarly, huge expectations have been raised only to be dashed with
respect to the notorious Big Dig, which will, at some point in the
future, sink the section of Route 95 that runs through downtown Boston
under the ground, and replace it with a stretch of public park. I’m
told that, in expense and ambition, the Big Dig rivals only China’s
mammoth Three Gorges project as the largest public works project on
the planet. Naturally, the Big Dig has been mired in controversy and
cost-overruns from the beginning, yet it keeps chugging on,
transforming the city on what seems a daily basis, as auto and
pedestrian traffic is endlessly rerouted and new bridges and tunnels
appear suddenly as if out of nowhere.

Fittingly, the protean city of Boston provides the setting for
much of Fast Eddie, King of the Bees, a first novel by Robert
Arellano that’s just out from Akashic Books. Fast Eddie kicks
off Akashic’s Urban Surreal series, and if Fast Eddie is any
indication, Akashic’s commitment to this series will result in some
gorgeous books, for Fast Eddie is beautifully designed, with
illustrations by Marek Bennett and Lindsay Packer. Arellano, who holds
an MFA from Brown University, where he now teaches writing and
hypertext, is also the author, under the pen name Bobby Rabyd, of the
Web’s first interactive novel, Sunshine69, a wildly imaginative
redescription of the historic Altamont free concert at the height of
the Sixties. If Sunshine69 time-tripped backwards toward a
moment of lost utopian promise, Fast Eddie takes place in a
near-future dystopia, a future Boston (known, in Fast Eddie, as
the Beast) that’s nevertheless near enough to unsettle this erstwhile

But this is a bit misleading, because Fast Eddie has more in
common with Oliver Twist than with recent novels, like William
Gibson’s Neuromancer, set in a dystopic near-future. For one
thing, despite its glitzy descriptions of the future of just about
everything, Neuromancer still takes itself very serious as a
novel that squats firmly in a certain genre, with a plot and
characters that even Charles Dickens would recognize, even if he were
befuddled by the technology. Not so for Fast Eddie, which does
not so much tell a story as question the whole enterprise of
storytelling – of creating a series of events that unfold
according to an inner necessity that the narrative must slowly
uncover, the way a careful dissection can reveal structure and
function all at once, after the inessential surfaces have been
stripped away.

Fast Eddie is the story is the eponymous main character’s
quest, familiar from Oedipus, of finding out where he comes from, and
in the process discovering, or inventing, who he is. “Don’t ask me
where I come from,” Fast Eddie begins, orphaned and abandoned to
Boston’s criminal netherworld. “I myself should never have asked…The
problem is, the question asked me.” This reversal typifies most
subsequent developments for Fast Eddie, who must learn to cope with
the wild hairpin turns characteristic of his unsentimental education
in the school of near-future hard knocks, wild twists that occur on
the macro-level of the story as well as (and often most beautifully)
on the micro-level of sentences and transitions in the language of the
story (of which more below).

Fast Eddie is taken in by Shep, “my makeshift Fagin,” who schools the
city’s orphans (“rats”) in civics and petty thievery in an abandoned
candy factory. Despite his embarrassingly large feet, Fast Eddie
becomes “Shep’s fastest rat,” a deft criminal for whom “crime is an
art, and the criminal is an artist of disillusion.” According to the
School of Shep, pickpockets are altruists who serve the public by
stealing, which provides the vital service of letting the hot air out
of puffed-up folk who need to be reminded now and then that time
undoes us all. “The picker,” Eddie explains to his fellow ragamuffins
in Shep’s pickpocket training program, “comes bearing a message of
transience to be sent by special delivery.” If this description
applies to the art of picking pockets, it also strikes me as a fine
description of how a plot works. Unfortunately, for Eddie, the story
of his life can’t be orchestrated according to the aesthetics of
“picking”, or to any similar artful dodging; along with the reader, he
waits in vain for the message that will answer, or at least assuage,
his burning questions about origins, his in particular. But this
message never arrives. (Did you really expect it to?)

Instead, events unfold just because Eddie is hapless and lucky.
Hilarity ensues, misunderstandings are perpetuated, and the story
(“plot” is not quite right) rolls on from there. The underlying
structure, this novel’s prime mover, is nothing more or less
complicated than the way things usually go: inexorable, mostly
senseless, one after another, without letting up. In this, Fast
reminds me of nothing so much as Der Laufen der Dinge
(The Way Things Go),
the 1987 film by Peter Fischli and David
Weiss. In this film, simple tools like levers, wheels, and inclined
planes, are ordered in a witty 30-minute march of events in which
energy is inventively transferred from object to object. While nothing
unexpected ever really happens, the effect is peculiarly suspenseful,
for even if the next event is obvious, events unfold so slowly that
you aren’t prepared for the inevitable until it happens, and sometimes
not even then.

I suspect that Eddie, such a persistent sense-maker, must have given
Arellano a real run for his money while writing this book; the
meandering plot often conflicts deeply with Eddie’s perceptions and
his persistent efforts to make sense of his life so often run afoul of
what happens next that one senses a real effort, on Arellano’s part,
to keep control of Eddie’s persistent chasing after sensible
explanations. For instance, at one point, Eddie finds himself
hesitating at the door to Madame Adelle’s fearsome Penny Arcade in New
Jersey, where darkness, the utter absorption of the players in their
video games, the dank smells, the moldy carpet, and the insufficient
ventilation conspire to give the place a quasi-mystical allure. At
this moment, Eddie loses consciousness, or nearly does (he isn’t sure)
and when he comes to, he realizes “I had somehow been spirited to the
forbidden back room…In a cruel accession of destiny a snippet of
deliberation had been lost to me. How had I been robbed of the chance
to chicken out?” Here, surely, Arellano knows that something important
must happen to Eddie in this bizarre situation, so he pulls him,
resisting, into the fray, in order to bring him face to face with
Adelle, “the spookiest old gypsy staring with glazed eyes.” The scene
is suffused with scummy neglect; the air is viscous, the windows
smudged with soot, and Adelle’s pack of cards, spread face down on a
table, are “only slightly less dingy than the tablecloth of rotting

Arellano has already tipped us off to what’s coming: Adelle’s image
appears on a poster with DEUS EX MACHINA embossed on one side. On
closer inspection, this goddess indeed turns out to be ex
, for she is revealed as a female-shaped automaton, with “a
coin slot where her navel might have been.” Conveniently, Eddie finds
his trusty talisman, a penny named One Cent, in his pocket; he inserts
it, in order to gain some purchase on his fortune, but this communion
with the future is interrupted by the arrival of an arch-enemy with
designs on Eddie’s outsize Adidas’s. Eddie flees, the better to begin
the next adventure. But he is none the wiser and neither are we.

In fact, the scene with Adelle illustrates a tension that supplies
much of the forward motion in this novel: Arellano must constantly
negotiating the distance between how Eddie, the sense-maker, explains
his life to himself, and how the chaotic, senseless order of events
conspire to subvert that effort at sense-making. This tension is of a
piece with Arellano’s earlier hypertext work, Sunshine69,
wherein accumulated ordinary events bear the burden of moving the
story forward, replacing a mechanism of plot with an ordering that
simulates “real time,” the messy kind of time that’s lived, as it
were, one day at a time. In Arellano’s hypertext, the reader is
invited to filter, sort, organize, and backtrack, in order to come
away with an understanding both of the whole work and of the
complexity involved in any narrative project that aims to do a
different, non-novelistic justice to the messiness lived experience,
which doesn’t usually wrap up like a novel by Agatha Christie. Yet,
there’s something about Fast Eddie – perhaps because it is
a novel, or perhaps because it is Arellano’s first novel, or for some
other reason – that I found less satisfying than
. The novel’s more or less explicitly parodic stance
toward conventions of genre – in particular, the kinds of
narratives we have learned to expect from novels – suggests that
no overall sense-making, even of a provisional sort, is satisfying.
All our satisfactions are, at best, local.

On the other hand, if Fast Eddie, King of the Bees refuses the
wider kind of satisfaction, it more than rewards the reader who’s
willing to attend to other things. Wordplay, for instance. Fast
is full of exuberant linguistic hijinks, a joyful linguistic
excess that’s hugely refreshing. Such suggestive wordplay is typical
of Arellano, who used it to great effect in Sunshine69.
Although Arellano now and then lets himself get away with a groaner
(e.g., “All sniffed their snifters, sobbed into their bottles, and
glugged their mugs. There wasn’t a dry martini in the house.”) his ear
for this admittedly somewhat subtle stuff strikes me as both true and

Moreover, while the resonances with the nineteenth-century novel,
particularly Dickens’, are clear, with Eddie’s makeshift Fagins and
Magwitches, the novel’s also vividly evokes the here-and-now. Arellano
never lets you forget that this is Boston, not London; East Beast is
not EC1. All the particulars are right, from “the smoke-scented dusk
of the Beast in springtime” to Arellano’s descriptions of typical
Massachusetts motorists (there’s a reason everyone else in New England
calls us “Massholes” on the road) to the “dreary, inky light” of
Crossroads Tavern, where one might, indeed, feel “the beginning of a
beautiful dependency” with a single pint, and where a madman might
burst in shouting “with all the ceremony of a psychopathic slug.”
Actually, madmen in the Beast do just that – particularly after a
Red Sox game.

Boston is the right setting for a story about origins: it’s the home
of the Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, of Paul Revere’s famous
ride; it’s the cradle of the American Revolution and, as such, the
furnace of a national idea. But, well, there is the idea, and there is
the reality. You can commit to the ideas of revolution or industry or
urban renewal, in love with promise, but there’s a difference between
making promises and just being promising. Maybe I never really
committed to Boston either; when I moved to Boston in 1993, I had no
intention of staying for so long. Yet, here I am. How did that
happen? It’s here, perhaps, that I feel the most sympathy for
Arellano’s perplexed, hapless Eddie: it’s not so much that I’m asking
the question, but that the question asks me. Boston: the scab I keep
picking, the story that just goes on and on.

Further reading online:


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After eight and a half years in Boston, Diane Greco has moved to Brooklyn. Her affection for the Red Sox is, however, undiminished.