Review: Get Katja by Simon Logan
The eponymous Katja is a punk, a fact that won’t have escaped readers of Logan’s previous novel, Katja From the Punk Band. About the only things that Katja values in her life are her guitar, her band, and her wits. All three are about as battered as each other but, as Minnesota punk band Dillinger 4 wrote, channelling down-and-outer author Nelson Algren, “the beat-up side of what they call pride could be the measure of these days.”
Alas, Katja’s simple dream of a simple life thrashing her guitar and vocal chords on-stage is yet to be realised. She’s only recently emerged from hiding to play a gig, having gone off-grid to escape blowback from the first novel’s events. Following soundcheck she’s jumped by debt-collector Lady Delicious and her gang of transvestite thugs. Katja’s protestations that neither she nor her band have borrowed any money fall on deaf bejewelled ears, and her guitar is taken to ensure she won’t abscond without playing the show.
Delicious and her girls aren’t the only parties with an interest in Katja. Crooked detective DeBoer, fresh on the heels of a poker loss against local loan shark Frank, spots a poster for the gig from which Katja’s mohawked visage snarls forth. DeBoer has run into Katja previously and there’s no way he’d fail to recognise her, or the potential value a captured Katja represents to some of his affiliates. Then there’s the voyeuristic nurse Bridget and her boss, Doctor Stasko, a deranged surgeon addicted to cosmetic body modification surgery. Stasko has found a copy of the same poster and is convinced that Katja is perfect for one of his projects; he strong-arms Bridget into ‘obtaining’ her. Bridget’s at a loss as to how to find Katja, but fortunately for her she’s just met Nikolai, Katja’s ex-bandmate and a recovering addict.
This cast and more are pulled into Katja’s erratic orbit as the chase begins in earnest. Their efforts often clash and collide, leading to Katja finding herself passed constantly back and forth and various parties getting knocked out or robbed as they pursue their mohawked prize. The evening of The Broken’s comeback gig is setting up to be one of the busiest, and nastiest, in their lives – assuming they make it through to morning.
It took me about halfway through Get Katja to clock that the novel’s core literary mode is that of a farce: a comic and dramatic tale characterised by roughly-drawn characters and highly improbable situations. It is strange how an act of mental categorisation can shift a perception of a piece of fiction: prior to cottoning on I’d found myself increasingly put off by how absurd and contrived the events in this apparently cynical and streetwise story were. Once I was in on the joke and light was shone on the novel’s comic intentions, it and I gelled a little more.
I’m also of the opinion that Logan has drawn inspiration from the seminal British film Get Carter – the novel’s title is an obvious pun – particularly in his convoluted plotting, his focus on underworld lives and the casually brutal violence he describes. Unlike Carter, however, Katja is often an actor without agency; while she’s tough, smart and independent she spends as much of the novel unconscious or imprisoned as not.
There’s some dissonance at the novel’s heart as a result of its protagonist so often proving an object rather than an agent, but Logan mitigates this issue through the use of multiple character perspectives and the increasingly sympathetic Nikolai. It also helps that following the twists and turns of the dense plot soon becomes the reader’s focus, particularly in the latter half when an additional thread is revealed.
Logan does bill Get Katja not as farce but as “industrial crime” – industrial as in the music scene, a la Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy and so on – though I’m unsure what to make of that, as outside of his grimy world, corrupt characters and occasional reference to body-modification there are few strong connections to industrial music or the crime genre. Then again, I’m writing this for the British Science Fiction Association, and am no expert on industrial music or crime fiction. I am at least qualified to point out that the book has very few SFnal elements indeed, and perhaps the most fantastical idea present is that a punk band playing a dive venue would be paid a sum of money actually worth stealing.
The prose is generally focused on clarity and the direct interactions of characters over ostentatious literary flair, with descriptive narration often limited to initial scene-setting. Few of the novel’s locales have a particularly strong sense of place and there’s little opportunity for introspection. Instead the focus is on action and movement, as it should be for a novel that is so heavily constituted by its plot. This does mean that the novel can sometimes feel a little superficial and detached, but once you’re caught up in the flow of events it’s rarely a concern. Furthermore the heavily-plotted and farcical nature of the novel might clash with characters composed of finer strokes, or where the urban environment possessed more of the unpredictable personality it occasionally exhibits.
I do wish that what characterisation we do get was less prone to cartoonish misanthropy; a personal bugbear which I feel is all too often a lazy shortcut in writing which wishes to appear ‘mature’ by way of blanket cynicism about human beings (and if there’s one thing I’ve often seen at the heart of punk, even at its nihilistic worse, it is a contrarian optimism). Here and there can also be found instances of clumsy phrasing but I’d put these down to typographical errors rather than deliberate poor choice. Logan’s focus is principally upon his novel’s strengths, which he works upon so as to secure its inherent weaknesses. But probably Get Katja’s biggest weakness is that it’s not terribly funny: the improbable twists and turns of the plotting provide most of the effective humour, with the characters’ attempts at wit almost uniformly falling flat. Of course, this could be a byproduct of how utterly dreadful we are intended to find most of the cast… but at least Katja could have gotten a few good jabs in.
For all that I have criticised many aspects of this novel, I’d give it a reserved recommendation. It’s a solid novel that proves a lot of fun and although its weaknesses may be apparent to the discerning reader, they’re easy to overlook in enjoying the ways in which the book sings – or, at least, snarls.