Monday, October 25, 2010

Numb by Sean Ferrell

by Sean Ferrell

How do we define our “self,” and to what degree does our work inform that definition? What if all we remember is our recent history? And what if we see our scars, but have never felt their harm? In Numb, Sean Ferrell’s title character grapples with amnesia and his mysterious inability to feel pain. After a brief residency in a low-rent circus, Numb travels to New York City with his friend and fellow performer, Mal, hoping to discover more about his past.

Numb’s wounds are not the Claire-from-Heroes variety — his blood may clot faster than most, but the marks still remain. Though he does not feel the nails being hammered between his fingers, he still keeps his tetanus shot current and keeps the wounds clean. He and Mal spend some time “performing” in bars to keep their room at a crappy hotel, and word soon spreads. In the ubiquitous camera age, footage of his various stunts attracts the attention of television and talent agencies. They want to capitalize on his “condition,” and unsure of what else to do, Numb pursues the celebrity ride — a circus in itself.

After seven pages of contract, I said, “Let’s just get to the heart of it. If I sign, I get some money, right?”

Michael raised his eyebrows at me and said yes.

“And the production company gets the rights to my life story, whatever it may be.”

Again, Michael said yes.

“And you think this is a fair deal?”

He said he did.

“Where do I sign?”

Of course, just cashing in on whatever your agent tells you to do doesn’t make for much of a real life. Numb begins a complicated relationship with a blind artist named Hiko, and his friendship with Mal has its own troubles. His efforts to figure out his past don’t turn up much information, so he is left to figure out who he is and what he wants now.

Ferrell’s writing is rather straightforward and appropriately detached for a first-person narrator whose emotions have become subdued, a side effect from the lack of physical pain. On occasion, Numb works up some anger, some lust, but his struggle lies in, well, his lack of struggle. He is easily talked into things and would prefer easy decisions. At times, that might make the plot moves seem too deliberately constructed, but once one realizes that Numb has just let things happen to him, they make more sense.

I said, “Not everyone knows what they want, Mal.”

“Yeah, but anyone can take a little control until they figure it out.”


“Well, what’s so great about your life? You’re living with a weird woman in a tiny little studio, with no job, and you look like hell.”

“What’s great about my life is I say no all the time, man. I’ve chosen a hard path, but it’s the one I chose. Did you know that Michael tried to recruit me after you signed with him? Wanted to get you a sidekick, he said.”

“You’re not my sidekick.”

He laughed. “Shut the hell up. I was. I was your friggin’ assistant. I held the nail, for Christ’s sake.” The smile fell off his face. “But I told him to go screw himself and that was the moment I realized I was angry at you for what I was doing.”

My only real complaint about the book is that I wanted a little bit more — maybe a few more answers, a bit more description of the meatier parts, in the anger and the lust — but maybe that’s because I’m just coming off reading Happy Baby, which is all introspection and unflinching detail. That’s really the trouble with reading and reviewing books in such rapid succession — my reaction is inevitably colored by what else is most fresh in my mind. Despite its imperfections, Numb is still an excellent, entertaining novel, and I want to read what Sean Ferrell writes next.

You’ll have to forgive the abbreviated nature of this review. I finished reading Numb the day before I left on a week-long vacation, and I read another book while gone before I wrote this review. Time and the chaos of Disney World mixed with a cold has left me making excuses, I realize, but my apologies for not being as thorough as usual. For further reading, check out Sean Farrell’s self-interview over at The Nervous Breakdown.


Full disclosure: I received this book along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my blog, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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