The novel that spawned the new movie Repo Men is out in a new paperback edition, and the the first line is, "The first time I ever held a pancreas in my hands, I got an erection." Organ-snatching spoilers ahead.
The good news is, the rest of The Repossession Mambo lives up to that opening line, more or less, and it's gonzo, bloody fun.
I still haven't seen Repo Men, but the novel it's based on, by Eric Garcia, is pretty darn entertaining and not nearly as simplistic as you might have feared. Like the movie, this is the story of Remy, an ex-soldier from the big African wars, who becomes a repossession specialist for the Credit Union that lends people money to buy artificial organs. You can get everything from a heart to a pancreas to a brain upgrade, but the interest payments are insane — and then if you get more than 120 days behind schedule, a thug comes to your house and rips your organs out.
It's not exactly an original story idea, but the execution (no pun intended) is pretty great this time around. And everybody involved with the book and the movie has pretty much acknowledged a huge debt to Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life. Garcia delves pretty deep into his awful main character, and also finds sneaky ways of getting at the big questions his premise raises about our current health-care system and the financial industry that exists to drag so many Americans deep into debt.
In essence, Repossession Mambo is a serial-killer story, blended with medical drama, blended with a heavy dash of funny corporate evil. It's just as sardonic as that opening line would lead you to believe, and the novel's many bloody sequences of dismemberment never fail to show us how much the main character enjoys his work. (The funniest bits are often when he's tearing organs out of some minor celebrities who've gone broke, and telling them how much he loved their work before completing the job and leaving their smeary corpses behind. That happens a few times in the book. In one instance, he meets a legendary music producer, and the narrator says, "I felt I owed it to the guy to tell him how much I appreciated his music before I ripped out his central nervous system.")
Garcia's chatty first-person narrator, who doesn't even get a name in the book but is Remy in the movie, takes us deep inside the world of predatory organ lending, showing us just how much of a full-court press of marketing the organ companies put on to get you to sign up for an artiforg. And how badly they screw you with huge interest payments, late-payment penalties and other financial chicanery. It's like Phil Gramm's wet dream.
On the other hand, the more you learn about all of the people Remy is killing, the more you realize that they should all be dead already. They're people who would be dead in today's world, and it's only thanks to the miracle of an artificial heart or lung that they're able to keep walking around — until they can't pay for it. (The real question you're left with at the end of the book is how these companies make any money at all, since it seems like everybody defaults on their organ payments. I guess that's where the "repo" part comes in — they can go ahead and stick those organs in someone else.) So rather than being a simplistic look at our evil for-profit healthcare system and how it hurts people, Garcia's story points to another big piece of the puzzle — healthcare costs are skyrocketing because our technology keeps getting better, and that fancy tech isn't cheap. This is a real-life issue that people don't always acknowledge in the debate over health spending.
In a twist that will surprise almost nobody — and which Garcia gets out of the way early on in the book — Remy himself gets an artificial heart. (How he gets it, and why, does come as a huge surprise, and we don't learn the full story until late in the book.) Soon enough, Remy can't keep up with his own heart payments, and so he has to go on the run from his own people. What's hilarious is that even after Remy is hiding out from his former colleagues, he keeps sticking up for them. Whenever anyone else complains about the unfairness of the system, the fugitive Remy denies it. As one character says, "They quitted you, but they didn't quit you enough."
There's nothing new about the story of a guy in a future Corporate Dystopia, who winds up turning up against his corporate overlords and going on the run — that could be a description of Brazil. What's great about Garcia's version of it is that the corporation is so sleazy, which seems more believable somehow. And unlike the mid-level bureaucrat or leader you usually get in these sorts of situations, Remy really is a grunt. He's just a working stiff, an ex-soldier who enjoys killing and doesn't really give a crap — until he does. It's a pretty unique perspective.
And Garcia uses a tangled, loopy structure to tell his story — it's all being written down by Remy on an old typewriter he finds, while he's on the run from the Credit Union. Remy tells what's just happened to him (as he's on the run), plus his life story including his experiences during the war, and what it was like to be a Bio-Repo professional. All three timelines are interspersed willy-nilly, giving us a fragmentary look at Remy, as soldier, licensed serial killer, and fugitive. And the great thing is, he's kind of an asshole in all three timelines. We do eventually get the sense that Remy has grown as a person, but he never changes that much.
Which is another reason to love Garcia's novel. It's utterly misanthropic. Remy is a douchebag. His five ex-wives are all psycho bitches who use him and lie to themselves. His coworkers are dickwads, and his best friend is a manipulative, lying scumbag. It's one of the gloomiest portrayals of the human race we've seen in book form in ages, and yet it's also incredibly funny and loads of fun.
In the end, of course, Remy learns the error of his ways — well, sort of. At least, he loses the will to keep slicing people up, but not before he slices up one of his ex-wives. And he also finds true love, with the one person in the book who doesn't seem utterly despicable. Repo Men, the novel, is the most fun you can have elbow deep in someone else's viscera. It'll be interesting to see how it translates to a movie.