A BRILLIANT ECCENTRIC is found dead. The police dismiss it as a suicide, but the man’s lover is convinced it was murder and will stop at nothing to discover the truth. Can our scrappy protagonist trust anyone, even her own family? Is a stolen painting the key to unlocking the plot’s multiplying mysteries? Is Trotsky’s variant of Marxism incompatible with the exceptionalism of the individual championed by Aleister Crowley? Up until that last question we had a comfortably familiar crime fiction narrative ready for bed, but then along comes Nick Mamatas to kick over the cradle.
Our narrator is Dawn, a punk rocker in her late teens. Her idle voyeurism into the lives of her Long Island neighbors leads her to Bernstein, a mystic living in a shack. Bernstein is ostensibly the victim here, but given the particulars of her situation it’s Dawn who we feel for. Bernstein’s dead on page one, whereas Dawn is saddled with a demented grandmother, menaced by a basehead father and a girl who looks strangely like her, and surrounded by a tightening net of too-interested strangers. It’s hardly surprising that Dawn doesn’t believe in justice, punishes herself for even succumbing to the impulse to say the word, but instead directs all her energy to solving the case for her own sake. Her tutor may be gone, but Dawn isn’t done seeking out answers.
Not that she will find a whole lot of those, or at least not answers she can trust. There are unreliable narrators, and then there are narrators who share something of Crowley’s worldview, especially his sense of humor. That she is going up against other devotees of the Great Beast further compromises her footing, and that of the reader, as if Leviathan were stirring beneath us all. In the end, Dawn confronts her doppelganger, but not the obvious one she saw coming — another practitioner of Crowleian magick, but one skewed right instead of left.
There’s plenty in Crowley to appeal to an Objectivist mindset; after all, people turn to him for the same reason they turn to Ayn Rand — he tells them they are special, they are worthy, and that they shouldn’t pity their lessers. Thus our finale isn’t a mundane black- vs.-white, us-vs.-them conflict, but a series of encounters with other individuals who share some of Dawn’s ideologies. Mamatas doesn’t present a single view of anything, instead providing us with a hall of mirrors through which we can glimpse the distorted possibilities that sundry philosophies open for us.
Really, though, the book isn’t about this or that theory of magick or Communism. It’s about Dawn. She’s a living, breathing person in a way few literary characters truly are — she bleeds, and we believe she bleeds. Dawn may be “a fucking genius,” but she also takes times out of recounting the tensions between fringe Socialist groups to ruminate on the age-old beef between punks and metalheads (excuse me, “dirtbags” — this is Long Island).
Love is the Law is not the first time Mamatas has upended genre conventions with his instantly recognizable style, but it may be his most accomplished effort yet. Not because it’s less ambitious than his previous novels (it isn’t), or because it’s more straightforward (though it is). No, what makes Love is the Law such an exemplary achievement is that here at last Mamatas has struck a nigh-perfect balance amongst all the disparate elements he draws together. In the past, the jarring clash of this narrative flourish with that contemplative aside was all part of the rough-and-tumble charm, but here the pieces all slide smoothly into place…no mean feat, considering how ambiguous it is in places.
Love is the Law is also a period piece, set in the final days of the Cold War. Some might argue that a measly quarter-century in the past hardly constitutes a work of historical fiction, but they’d be as wrong as any strawman to ever blow away in a light breeze of logic. 1989 was an entirely different world, and shifted just a year in either direction the novel wouldn’t work.
There is a juggling act one engages in when writing historical fiction: you must provide enough information that a reader unfamiliar with the era will become educated rather than lost, yet not so much that a reader already versed in the time period will become bored by over-explanations. There should be small but choice rewards for the reader who is familiar with the setting, yet nothing to directly punish the ignorant. Mamatas executes this feat with a magus’s finesse, and extends it beyond just the temporal landscape and into the political and philosophical. Love is the Law is not only a work wedded to the year in which it is set, but one that is also fundamentally reliant on the revolutionary political theories of the early 20th century as filtered through 1960s, 70s, and 80s American culture and counter-culture…plus Crowley’s esoteric philosophizing on the Will, as distilled through both leftists and the far right. Regardless of your handle on Reaganomics or Indie comics, on Communism or Hardcore music, whether you memorized portions of The Book of the Law back in high school or have never heard of Thelema, Mamatas provides plenty of illumination for the novice and guffaws for the adept. He’s simultaneously treating it seriously and thumbing his nose at the futility of it all, and inviting us in on the joke…because the joke’s kind of on us, isn’t it?
In the end, Love is the Law feels like the summation of something that’s been tickling at Mamatas for a while. It has the wry, gritty, melancholic quality of coming of age in 80s Long Island, a place with nothing for kids to do but grow up fast — or maybe kill each other. This is the same Long Island where teenage dirtbag and so-called “Acid King” Ricky Kasso murdered one of his buddies, a sensationalized true crime case Mamatas already visited once for his short story “A Stain on the Stone.” He mentions the murder again in Love is the Law, but then the whole novel is replete with elements Mamatas has addressed in the past, from class to clumsy sex to Crowley to Communism to escaping into the Never Never Land of NYC, if only for a few hours. At no point does the novel feel derivative of his previous works, though — rather, it feels like Mamatas is returning home.