The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was good enough that I ponied up for Touch as soon as it showed up on Kindle at my magical price point of ten bucks or so. North’s schtick is to take some preposterous idea and then write about it well enough that it - well it doesn’t stop looking preposterous, but you get drawn into how the characters are having a terrible time in preposterous world, instead of thinking “But how would that even work?” So last time it was reincarnation, but always as the same person born at the same time, and this time it’s a thinking person’s version of this movie; what if some wandering spirit could steal your body and just walk around in it like a meat suit?
I commented on Harry August that North had made a world full of slightly benign vampires, walking around among us trying to make the world a little more comfortable for their next go around and the one after that. In Touch the vampirism never really quite lands as benign, no matter how much the narrator tries to sell it to us. Sure, you borrow the body, carefully explaining the deal up front and paying the muppet afterwards directly or indirectly for the weeks or months you’ve been using it. Let’s just stick a pin in how many explanations that is and how long it is before the word gets out about this weirdness, and focus on how it just couldn’t work in practice; you get yourself possessed and you’ve no clue what the hell has been happening while you were possessed; how are any of these people ever going to pick up where their possessor left off? There’s going to be a trail of destruction a mile wide behind every single one of these guys. And that’s before the middle of the book, where we start to see how creepy it can really get.
The narrator is, just like Harry August, an ingratiating type, full of self-serving explanations about how it’s all for the best really, and in the early going, with some mysterious initiative out to get him at any cost, he feels like a well meaning underdog trying to get by in a tricky situation. But the further we go, the more it feels like you’re listening to a wife-beater explain how he loves his women really and he just can’t help what it makes him do. By the time he’s wrapped up the plot and fled the aftermath, hopping from body to body on a wave of self congratulation, my sense of rapport had blown away in the breeze.
I have to say, North is a good enough writer that I think that this was always the plan. Anyone else would have made him the slick anti-hero, one step ahead of the competition and really, not so bad a guy when you got to know him. Fantasy and supernatural fiction is full of efforts to make relatable monsters; look no further than Lestat, who was fun as a charming vampire asshole, but got steadily more unbearable the more Anne Rice thought of him as the beau ideal of tortured romance. North plays a cleverer game, letting the narrator rattle on with the guff he has to believe to get on with his life, but also letting all the bad stuff pile up through the book until the reader can’t help seeing through it. No matter how much this … thing … tells us he’s not such a bad guy, in the end he’s stealing bits out of people’s lives to eke out his own. And once we see enough of that, even through his careful eyes, it doesn’t feel like any kind of victory that he lives to fight another day.