Does Normal by Warren Ellis end abruptly, wrapping up the mystery too quickly or is it just the right length to make it’s point about the way the world is headed? For that matter, is it a mystery with sociopolitical commentary as it’s backdrop, or is it a comment on the future of the surveillance state with a mystery as part of its plot? The book’s very nature is in question (which may be intentional), however it doesn’t leave the reader unsatisfied.
In a world faced with total doom (although the book never specifies what this doom is, or if it’s just an effect of mass paranoia) futurists risk their sanity from their work. They get too depressed and go insane—something referred to in the book as the “abyss gaze.” As a result these futurists are sent by their employers to a facility known as Normal Head in Oregon.
The book follows Adam Dearden, a futurist who recently snapped, as he enters Normal Head. Immediately upon entering he witnesses another futurist who fashioned a shank out of a toothbrush and is demanding from the orderlies access to the Internet (“I only wanted to see some pictures of cats.”) He quickly begins meeting other patients of the facility, such as the overly-aggressive, confrontational Lela (who is possibly there because of cannibalism) and Clough, who preaches about the evils of money and is obsessed with the cartoon Danger Mouse. Adam tries to adjust to life in Normal Head despite his occasional breakdowns and blackouts.
Before too long Adam has a meeting with Normal Head’s doctor, Dr. Murgu (it’s never specified what kind of doctor she is, but she appears to be a type of psychologist). He has a hard time communicating with her at first, described by a passage that also serves as a clear example of Ellis’ writing style in the book:
He just nodded. This is how the cycle went. Emotional incontinence, and then hyperfocused on the environment but drained of words. No sensory input/output. Human-shaped camera. Two facets of terminal panic, he supposed.
I won’t give away too many spoilers but I will say that “Human-shaped camera” is a nice piece of foreshadowing.
Suddenly one of the patients disappears from his room, only to be replaced by a huge mass of insects crawling over his bed and throughout is room. Adam decides he needs to investigate this mystery with the help of all of the patients.
There’s more to the book but it’s hard to not give away too many spoilers, considering it’s less than 150 pages long. But the solution to the problem that everybody at Normal Head faces deals with constant surveillance by drones, which in turn is the project that Adam was working on when he stared into the abyss for too long. Finally he solves the mystery and with the help of the other patients, saves the day.
Yet he still attempts suicide as the other patients and orderlies are transgressing against the villains of the story—villains that go unseen in the main narrative, nor are they ever actually named, which only drives home the point about the surveillance state watching you behind the curtain. The suicide attempt lands Adam back in Dr. Murgu’s office, in which he explains that he helped create the world in which they were living, and he doesn’t want to get better and go back to live in the outside world which he sees as hopeless. Dr. Murgu responds with “Adam. You don’t live in the world anymore. You live in Normal. The only people watching are us now. This is a safe place.”
Dr. Murgu may have not been part of the villains’ plot, nor was she aware of the double-meaning of her statement. However, it clearly displays the book’s tendency to beat the reader over the head with its message. This combines with cartoon-ish characters and sometimes pretentious prose. Yet it’s done so cleverly that the book avoids dipping into the realm of cliché. The aforementioned potentially dangerous elements in the narrative, which combined with its conciseness, give it a tension that heightens the book’s impact.