Only Forward

Michael Marshall Smith
Only Forward Cover

Memorable but Imperfect


What a perplexing book. On the one hand, I certainly have never read anything quite like it; but then there are tons of aspects of the book that are irritating and unsatisfying, making the novel fall well short of brilliance.

The novel starts as an Adams-esque science fictional satire, complete with home appliances with snappy personalities. My suspension of disbelief wrestled with the setting for a while, until I accepted that it was satirical and surreal, and thus should not be expected to make much sense. I wouldn't have thought much of this book if that was all there was to it; but I stuck with it because some reviews mentioned that the story went somewhere unexpected. And boy, did it ever.

The second part of the novel starts to build a much-needed sense of gravitas, and takes a turn for the psychological. There are parts of it that qualify as horror, inasmuch as there is plenty of graphical descriptions of bodily fluids; but besides a frightening nightmare chase, not much of the horror elements resonated much with me.

The setting, though, became compelling and exciting. Smith captures the disjointed emotional landscape of dreams with brio. I tend to read in bed, and there were many moments where I had to perform a reality check to make sure the surreal, liquid prose wasn't the result of having fallen asleep and dreaming that I'm reading a book.

Ultimately, though, even the brilliance of this sequence isn't enough to rescue a scattered plot. The prose is sometimes flat, sometimes brilliant, but none of the characters really transcend hard-boiled stock. The novel feels as if Mr. Smith was carrying three book outlines down the stairs, tripped, and picked up the pages again. The story builds to an emotional catharsis near the end, but it does so by dumping background information on the reader in the last twenty-five pages of the novel.

All in all, a perplexing book. Quite unique, but not all for the right reasons.