Monday, August 16, 2010


I wrecked my car during high school. Ran into a tree. What a moron.

I broke my ankle, split my lip open, but otherwise came through it okay.

Or did I?

Ever since then, I feel like part of my face, around my upper lip especially, has been less sensitive. It's not that it's numb, or has no feeling at all, just, maybe, less than there should be.

And, maybe, I'm emotionally less sensitive as well. Sometimes I think I'm practically Vulcan. Is it a result of trauma, is it a reaction to moving so many places, starting over so many times over the course of my life, is it some sort of coping strategy that evolved? I don't know. But sometimes, I feel like I'm emotionally numb.

The protagonist of Sean Ferrell's debut novel, Numb, arrives into the world literally numb. His first remembered moments are of stumbling through a sandstorm into a circus somewhere in the backwaters of Texas. He's numb, has no feeling at all, and soon becomes part of the circus sideshow. Nails are driven through his skin and he doesn't feel it. So begins his journey through popular culture, first as a freak, then as a, well, more high class freak. Numb, as he's called, experiences life without physical pain. And, in a way, he seems to have trouble relating to emotional pain as well. Yet he's certainly capable of causing - or at least bearing witness to - a tremendous amount of pain in himself and those who get too close to him.
Numb: A Novel

Numb, the novel, sucked me right in. I received it Friday afternoon and found myself grabbing it at every available opportunity. By Sunday morning I had devoured it. Could it be that I detected myself in the way Numb, the protagonist, stumbles through the world?

The book put me in mind of Paul Auster, whose novels contain a similar feeling of detachment from their narrators. In Numb, Ferrell creates a sort of avatar of and commentary on contemporary culture. Numb, the character, begins life fully grown, aware of and knowledgeable about everything except his own past. He starts his life in obscurity, grows a following, and, by the power of others more than any steps he takes himself, gets dragged up the ladder of success. He ends up in the spotlight, both figuratively and literally, as Ferrell casts his glare at the absurdity of celebrity. 

But these kind of metaphorical overtones aren't shoved in your face. It's a very open, deceptively easy to read work. I found it to be engrossing, entertaining and, in a few places, disturbing. Ferrell's voice is assured, his writing crisp and engaging. As I mentioned, I zoomed through it, caught up in Numb's strange journey.

I loved little observations. "Living for more than a few days in a hotel is like being dead and resting in a morgue. Everything you need is at your disposal, but you need nothing." I appreciated the way Numb, the character, acknowledges and understands and is affected by the internet but never directly interacts with it. I loved the irony of Numb being a man who lets every one else make decisions for him, the complete opposite of every Hollywood hero, while Hollywood courts him and tries to tell his story - a story that Numb himself doesn't even know. It's funny because it's true.

As I sit here thinking about the novel, I discover more and more interesting layers. There's a Christ story in there (is Mal, Numb's friend and sometime savior, a John the Baptist, paving Numb's way in the wilderness?), lots of digs at celebrity culture and Hollywood, and a parable about someone like me, someone who can feel that the world spins so fast, that life goes by so quickly, that things are so strange as to leave him numb.

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