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The n-Body Problem

by Tony Burgess

The title of Tony Burgess’s new novel refers to a question in classical mechanics: is it possible to predict the individual movements of a group of celestial objects that interact with one another gravitationally? Isaac Newton postulated that the n-body problem was “unsolvable”; this appropriately titled addition to Burgess’s outlandish psycho-lit oeuvre proves just as stubbornly bewildering.

The n-Body Problem is a gory, sometimes poetic, often confounding stream-of-consciousness nightmare, more post-apocalyptic fiction than zombie novel. (The zombies barely feature in the story, though their corpses do play a large role in the lives of the living.) Instead of shuffling around purposefully, hungering for human brains, the dead simply move with “[a] strange gentle agitation” that the novel likens to Parkinson’s disease. After a number of failed experiments at disposal, officials hit on the solution to the problem of aimless, lifeless wanderers clogging the streets: send the dead into orbit. However, the celestial corpses begin to affect the Earth’s sunlight, resulting in “Syndrome” – a blend of paranoia, depression, and hypochondria that turns the living into monsters of a different sort.

Our narrator is a middle-aged contract killer who has been hired by something called “the School board” to dispose of a sicko named Dixon. Dixon is a “Seller” who convinces the living they’re better off orbiting the Earth as twitching corpses than continuing their sunlight-deprived lives on a doomed planet. Though Dixon may have a point – Burgess’s post-apocalyptic vision is one of the bleakest you’re likely to encounter – it’s what he does with the corpses that makes him a villain. Readers may want to keep a vomit bucket handy while reading the chapter that bears Dixon’s name.

Around the midpoint, the novel takes a bizarre and extremely grotesque turn that is both perplexing and isolating. This frankly baffling twist, and its narrative fallout, leaves readers wondering where the plot might have gone had Burgess decided not to confine his grand premise to one unfortunate character’s perspective.