Pharmacology is set in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. It seems like a long time ago. I have never been to that American West Coast city, but now I’ve read Christopher Herz’s second novel, I feel like I know it well. He takes the reader, holding the hand of his lead character Sarah Striker, through the steep streets, dockside coffee shops, pavement bars and downtown nightlife, eyes wide open, amazed at what we see.
There is a wonderful ‘cameo’ in the early part of the book, an appearance from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American beat poet. Sarah asks him for some advice, and he replies:
‘Surround yourself with talented people who other people don’t realise are so talented, and do whatever you can to get it out. Never believe what anyone tells you because those who have time to critique have little time to create’.
I think the old man would be honoured to find himself in the pages of this book, partly because it is full of poetry itself. Sarah, the young woman from Kansas who is trying to make a go of life in the big city, is a passionate music fan. So some of that poetry comes in the form of lyrics. NWA, Public Enemy, and other hip hop bands of the 90s provide the background music to Sarah’s fanzine project, an aptly-named publication called ‘luddite’. For a major theme of Pharmacology is the onset of the digital age, and how the forward march of internet technologies has changed life forever.
The rest of the poetry is all Herz’s. His talent for description and evoking an atmosphere kept me gripped throughout the book. There is an intricate plot – and I am not giving too much away by telling you it involves vampires, sadomasochism, pharmaceutical companies and bicycle delivery couriers – but it’s the language that makes the book special.
Sarah Striker’s narration is compelling, funny, dry and poignant. I trusted her implicitly, and believed what she had to tell me. And every so often she’d come out with a pearl of wisdom that left me nodding my head, with a sad sigh, in agreement:
‘Only a few stick with you down the entire way because on that path, there are so many missteps and falls that cause deep wounds and lasting scars, most people shy away when the pain starts. It’s the ones who walk with you through it all that allow you to understand love. You have to learn that by being left’.
I share Herz’s misgivings about the increasingly detached, electronic world we live in (though I note he is pretty nifty at using the internet as a writer, including in the form of a Sarah Striker twitter account). And I agree with Mark Simpson who seemed to echo Herz’s views, when he said that ‘romance is analogue and so very last century’. But Sarah Striker reminds me that no matter how old-fashioned and seemingly behind the 21st century times they may be, the things we make with paper and pens, and blood, sweat and tears, things like words and novels and poems and fanzines, will always be here in some shape or form. For they are part of what being human is all about.
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