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“The lies have taken hold, have been in control for years, ruling his every action, his every thought. The lies squeezing him into their shape, making him fit their mold. The mold he created when he spoke them.”
SPOILER: There are no Vikings in this, the latest from Ajam Bailschon, author of the Polar Prize winning Snakes Don’t Like Me. Nor is there any cannabalism.
Instead, the titular man becomes whatever he needs to be, impersonating a real person because he fears he may not actually be one, or not even exist at all.
Awoken into a reality he knows nothing about each new day, Bailschon’s latest hero/victim does literally what we all do figuratively- he reinvents himself to suit each new challenge. Whether it’s finding sustenance or just getting out of bed, the nameless MC (let’s call him “the man”) must reshape himself, his entire being, atom by atom, for every change in stasis. Even thought.
His brain a computer program constantly resetting, after each solitary neuron firing, every synaptic stimulus, the man must start from scratch again, rebooting endlessly, reinterpreting his surroundings, rediscovering himself.
The man is a blank slate, unsullied clay, and like clay, subject to the whims of its handlers. Reshaped by each encounter, the unquantifiable persona grows more tangible. It also grows more contradictory, those fingerprints manifesting themselves in increasingly outrageous ways.
He is over six feet tall when he slouches.
He once beat up a kangaroo over a bar tab.
He was going around with that coked out supermodel.
He was a bootlegger in a past life.
He used to work for Mexxon, but now he works for Gobil.
He comes from the North, South, East, and West.
He’s in his thirties and his eighties.
He’s not hungry and he’d like a nice juicy porterhouse with all the trimmings.
He doesn’t drink and he’s a raging alcoholic.
This is also the curse of freedom; the curse of free will. The man is us; we are the man. With each new action creating a new environment of possibility, the man is both gifted and tasked with endless newness, boredom of routine an impossibility. This ultimate expression of freedom is also the ultimate burden- being both your own creator and creation leaves you no time to just be, to simply exist.
Any moment of any day can be a restart, with the man’s occupation and economic status constantly changing, not to mention his name and address, his car, his plans for lunch.
As you might imagine, the man has strange dreams.
It is in those dreams that the man may relax, loosen his grip on literally everything and admire his worlds in all their glory. In this unconscious land, the man plays the role of underling or even slave, perhaps seeking respite from the responsibilities inherent in free will. These are the times that define the man, and they’re the most enjoyable of the book, filled with bizarre adventures and characters like fishtrees and fiery snowmen, finding unexpected humor in everyday places like our kitchen cupboard or even our shoes.
So if the man is us, are our days so filled with pursuits of goals that the only world we really inhabit is not the one we strive to build, but our own isolated dream worlds?
It’s unclear if other characters exist or are just more him, more particulars to facilitate his actions. When you are everything and everything is you, it’s probably hard to know for sure.
Bailschon keeps the reader on their toes as the man adapts to each new environment, afraid to ask questions and blindly accepting each change, no matter how radical. Fearing both being discovered and discovering his true nature, he finds himself alone on a beach one moment and on a camping trip with a wife and four kids the next. Imagine “waking up” mid-coitus or performing surgery on someone’s child. Or working behind a desk, in an argument with a stranger, driving a taxi or eating dinner. Details shift and reverse, reality becomes fluid, but there is always the anxiety of being found out. The dreamworld is the world the man longs for; the one place with no dark corners; everywhere is bright and loud with life; where no doorway hides a threat. Where the man may control nothing if he wishes. Or everything. Where he may long to reside. Permanently.
Denying his reality through perceptual amnesia or some sort of narcolepsy of the psyche he loses self determination and becomes an instrument of reaction.
At first he felt only a morning reset but now it’s unpredictable and could happen at any time. He’s starting to feel he can’t keep up; the changes are coming too many too fast, some only a few seconds long.
Are these even his own experiences, gathered through multiple lifetimes, across multiple dimensions, or are they samples of other lives? Like using a stranger’s toothbrush, the thought of using other people’s things, living other people’s lives, if even just for a few hours or few moments, repels the man. He is too far gone however to go back. The only way for him, and the reader, is forward.
Flitting in and out of situations he doesn’t recognize he goes limp, giving in entirely to the parade of hollow actions until he becomes blank; an empty vessel.
It’s not a stretch to see within the lack of enthusiasm with which Bailschon views the modern world a little of ourselves, or at least our inner savage. The author succeeds in making the minutiae of our day to day lives seem less than insignificant when compared to what happens when we’re actually living and not just trying to get somewhere or do something.
Sometimes it’s the little moments that make you stop and think, and The Man Who Ate Vikings is full of them. It’s also perhaps a cautionary tale: don’t spend so much of your life building something, be it a house, a career, that you never get a chance to enjoy it.