Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Nightshade Books, 2007
As it turns out, Bobby is, because he resurrects a day or two later, clear across the continent, in the body of an awakened coma patient, and not just any awakened coma patient but the perfect awakened coma patient, someone who’s been unconscious since childhood, outlived all his relatives and, due to the settlement from the accident that put him in the coma, has boatloads of money. If you have to come back into the body of a coma patient, this is the one to pick.
Bobby Zha even makes it back to San Francisco in time for his own funeral.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood plays fair with his readers about this body-leaping, giving us enough back-story and clues to figure out that Bobby’s soul-shuttling is not purely supernatural. There are human agencies at work. Back in San Francisco, Bobby, impersonating an agent from some super-secret no-name organization, begins to explore the events leading up to his death. He also will not keep away from this wife—or more accurately his widow—and his daughter, even though he really should.
As Zha uncovers his partner’s treachery, the mystery of a Russian icon, and the rumor of dead babies with tails, Grimwood uncovers more of Bobby Zha’s personal history for the reader. Nominally Chinese-American, Zha is actually another one of the writer’s multicultural boys who fetched up on San Francisco’s shores. His mother was Caucasian, his maternal grandmother English; he had an aunt who lived in Paris. And he had a powerful Chinese grandfather who taught him about culture, honor and the Jinwei Hu, the celestial nine-tailed fox that acts as a psychopomp, kind of, guiding Bobby from life to death, death back to life, and then to. . . ?
The book veers into complete implausibility during the brief section set in New York, when Bobby wakes up in his new body. Fortunately, this section is short. To some extent the implausibility is forgivable, the more so as we come to realize that the choice of coma victims was not accidental or coincidental. Once we are back, grounded in San Francisco, it is easy to surrender disbelief and go along for the ride, to follow Bobby and his interactions with some very strange homeless people, his adoption of a crack-addicted cat, his difficult new relationship with a former fellow officer and his frequent slips as he forgets that he can no longer be Bobby Zha.
Anything Grimwood lacks in plausibility is more than excused by his amazing compression. He gives us a complex, layered story with convincing characters in just under 260 pages. I did think, however, that I never really knew whether Bobby was as good a cop as he seemed or as big a screw-up as people later say he is. I think this is an artifact of severe editing (that compression thing).
I think this book would have been more difficult for me if I had not read Grimwood previously. In fact, if I didn’t think that Pashazade was published in England before 9Tail Fox, I would have seen Zha as a cartoon or rough sketch for Ashraf Bey, who is sometimes called ZeeZee. Zha echoes ZeeZee in ways other than phonetic; sexual encounters on airplanes, lovers with streetwise fourteen-year-old brothers—oh, and a fox. Having read stories with Raf/ZeeZee, a story with Kit Nouveau and a story with Zha, I’m beginning to see a sort of underground connection among his characters. There is a hint they’ve all been altered in some way, whether it’s brain surgery or something at the level of DNA. Are all of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s characters connected, through time and alternate realities, some kind of shadow brotherhood even they don’t know about? Or is it just that he’s found a good thing and wants to stick with it?
Although the reasons for Zha’s return from death are technological and driven by human motives, the numinous is not absent from this story. Zha meets the nine-tailed fox shortly before he is killed. Later it comes to him in dreams, speaking to him in his grandfather’s voice, to warn him that he doesn’t have much time. At a crucial point in the plot, one of Zha’s army of homeless people sees the fox following Zha’s daughter Kris, and by the end of the book, even Kris can see it. It isn’t an hallucination or a mirage. It is real, a being from another plane, whose motives and behaviors do not match ours. The otherworldly frequently makes an appearance in Grimwood’s books. It doesn’t have to be explained or rationalized. It’s just there for those who can see it.
9Tail Fox is not perfectly plotted or perfectly paced, but the world created is three-dimensional, filled with sound and smells and real people, people we begin to understand even if we don’t like them. The book evokes San Francisco with a few telling details and little bits of history tossed off as grace notes. It’s a puzzle and thrill-ride, with a side order of redemption and a mystical nine-tailed fox.