Written by Aaron Poochigian — Epic crime novels written in verse don’t come along too often and Poochigian has written a remarkable book. It is ablaze with vivid imagery, memorable turns of phrase and lyrical flights of fancy. It is a genre-bending work of art that demands your full attention.
Mr Either/Or is an FBI agent with a double identity as a student. He is a Glock-toting wisecracking anti-hero with conflicted motivations and his own code of morality. So far, so noir. The story opens with him finding a mythological box with incredible powers. He needs to get it away from various nefarious parties. A little bit of investigation and some violence follow:
Gunfire! Silencers! You hit the floor
on instinct but your host’s too slow—a slug
explodes his forehead, brains Rorschach the wall.
The story pulls in epic mythology, sci-fi, as well as modern noir elements of gang wars and shadowy cityscapes. It’s written in second person narration but a style that can be jarring in prose works well here. I barely noticed it. The poetry varies but it is mostly a comfortable and easily recognisable iambic pentameter but during the action scenes Poochigian switches to a choppier style reminiscent of some ancient Norse alliterative verse, adding to the epic vibe. Importantly, it also has the practical effect of injecting pace into those scenes.
Poochigian follows the normal genre tropes up to a certain point but the novel then lurches in a different direction. The last third of the book would be more comfortably described as science fiction. I had mixed emotions about this: is it wildly original or just a breakdown in the basic story structure? In the end you have to put yourself in Poochigian’s hands and go with the flow.
Tonight, though, fiends of unknown origin
are running round, shrink-wrapped in human skin.
What motivates them? Instinct, like in lizards?
What are they hunting? Parts for what might be a
weapon? The Death Star? You have no idea.
The love interest is provided by an art historian, Li-ling. She is a PhD, the curator of the Asian collection at the Met in New York. This character is a little undercooked and while she has plenty of sass she’s always playing second fiddle to Mr Either/Or.
Check out your paramour, how far the hair
has bubbled up above her planted face;
look how her tuckus juts into the air:
Li-ling Levine, the Doc, in tanga panties.
(Though not quite the marriage of true minds,
you made a wicked pair of vigilantes.)
You can’t blast through this book; you have to pause to soak up the imagery. That reflects the nature of verse versus prose. Even a chase into a multi-storey car park is exquisitely rendered: “girded layers of pre-poured honeycomb” where a “lamp gleams just enough to turn the darkness noir”. The ironic wry nod to the noir atmosphere is typical of Poochigian’s satirical wink at the genres. This is literary, likeable, and funny.
Mr Either/Or is endlessly quotable with rhythms and beats that lodge in your brain. This book was eight years in the writing and there is really no spare fat on its bones. That’s as you would expect with poetry; it’s a distillation where every word matters, where every phrase counts, and it is simply not possible to pad out the pages with fluff and filler. This is a book to keep and re-read.