Fiction stranger than fiction: A review of I am Providence

When is fiction stranger than fiction?

I am Providence, a hilarious and clever murder mystery by Nick Mamatas, recounts the total meltdown of a small H.P. Lovecraft horror convention after one of its more outspoken attendees is found dead, with his face sliced off. The book works on many levels, and if you like quirky murder mysteries, sardonic humor, calling out bigotry, or the inner politics of genre publishing and fandom, quit reading this review and pick up a copy now. (Yes, I know, the ebook costs more than the dead tree edition. Because small press publishing or something. If you’re bemused by fandom’s excesses, this read is worth the money.)

To add to the entertainment, the story in I am Providence has provoked fulmination by some members of the fandom it skewers. But every time a Lovecraft fan complains about the way his compatriots (invariably his) were treated in this novel, he merely serves as a punch line of its joke. It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect of fandom writ large. To some, it’s insulting to poke fun at their preferred fannish subculture by writing fictional events that smack of recent real-world controversies. (This despite the fact that Mamatas’s protagonist Panossian has some glowing things to say about Lovecraft’s writing, if not his humanity.)

Some previous reviewers have gone so far as to claim that all the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stand-ins for real people in the incestuous world of H.P. Lovecraft fandom. I am here exercising my fannish duty© to set the record straight. Despite what Mamatas says on the first page, you know the part about every character in the book being fictional, especially you [emphasis added]? Well, he’s playing a trick on you there. I am Providence is clearly not about Lovecraftians, but rather about the internecine conflicts that rage in academic circles, which could never hope to be as cool as fandom. Panos Panossian is obviously a stand-in for Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has delighted in alienating as many business and social sciences scholars as possible, while crowing about how he is richer and in better shape than them. Charles Cudmore is based on Stephen Pinker (a favorite target of Taleb’s) and Ronald Ranger is even more clearly modeled after Clayton Christensen, who doesn’t hesitate to salt his business writings with inpirational pabulum derived from his LDS faith. I could go on…. Remember Sayre’s Law? “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Take it to its logical conclusion: academic conferences will lead to murder.

But what sort of academic conference would bring these antagonists together in one place? Maybe it’s not a real academic conference per se, but actually a trendy think-tanky thing like Yes, that’s it exactly! throws a meatspace event, gets a bunch of cranky academics together, and people start dropping like flies and getting their faces sliced off. This is clearly what Nick Mamatas really meant.

No, wait…. Maybe it’s not academics he’s after exactly. I am Providence would make as much sense if it were set at a TED conference, better yet, a local TEDx event. Those are exactly the kind of backstabbing one-up-you-with-my-cool-insiderish-idea-bullshit-spouting autodidacts who would react like the Lovecraftians in this novel. This is even more likely what Nick Mamatas meant.

Still better, maybe it’s really niche. Maybe it’s Girardians. Talk about a close-knit circle. The Colloquium on Violence & Religion puts on a conference in honor of René Girard. Mamatas was pretty prescient about the fact that Girard would die in 2015 when he started work on this novel in 2014! In this version, which is clearly the most accurate, Panos Panossian is a stand-in for Eric Gans. Ronald Ranger is Raymund Schwager, SJ; Bhanushali is Jean-Michel Oughourlian; David Cob is James Alison. We all need a scapegoat, especially Girardians, right?

On second thought, no, that list is absurd. But I just named a bunch of people you’ve probably never heard of, who are “a big deal” in their little corner of knowledge. You see? While some Lovecraft fans have their knickers in a twist over their beloved club being skewered by Mamatas, the entire world is chock-full of cliquish fiefdoms, each with its own arcane guidelines for insider-/outsiderness. Play too close to the borders, and you may end up with your face sliced off in a hotel laundry room. Okay, maybe not. But ostracism is a fate worse than death, right? Right? ;)

To conclude: All fiction is autobiography, authors don’t know their work (much less themselves) as well as readers do, and reviews are really about drawing attention to oneself.

Strike one, strike two, I’m out.

The joke’s on you for reading this far! Next time you read a review, just remember that it’s probably written by a struggling writer who’s trying to show off their insiderness, all the while flaunting their ignorance. And keep in mind: If you can’t enjoy a good laugh at your own expense, maybe writing isn’t the game for you.

See what happens when I hang out in Nick Mamatas novels? Now I’m doing it too. Well played, Nick.… Well played.

***** of *****

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.