Off the Grid: The Catalyst

Review by Jessica Corin

From the opening chapter we are invited to meet "Pan", and in Brian Courtney's masterfully crafted debut novel that follows, though we may never know his given name, we come to deeply know Pan and who he is struggling to remain as the world around him begins to crumble. Off the Grid: The Catalyst chronicles the journey of the man who goes by Pan, as he moves through the levels of corruption and stands on the precipice of the world he inhabits, yet how deep that ravine will go we have yet to realize.

Pan lives in the shadows, at the end of a nearly abandoned street inhabited only by those whom this world has forgotten. And though Pan may be forgotten, he finds himself bearing witness to the flow of history in the wrong direction. He watches an abusive and corrupt police presence lead to the mysterious deaths of his neighbor and a homeless man, his neighborhood about to be bought and sold en masse for gentrification or worse, a city-wide road construction project with nefarious ends, mass deportations, and as the stakes continue to build, an event dubbed the Massacre on the Mississippi which then reveals the nail in the coffin - the government initiative LifeLine, a program to be able to track, and ostensibly save, anyone at anytime. Present throughout are the women in Pan's life, Natalie, and Darcy, themselves perched between the powerful flow of history against the painful ebb of what is right.

Pan is in constant battle with a looming presence that manages to be both mysterious and manifest throughout the work. It is the "they", the world on the horizon that others before have termed Babylon, the Machine, the powers that be ... it is the great beast whom Pan simply calls The Institution. And it is the dichotomous split between Pan and the Institution at the heart of the novel that allows it to achieve its ambitious scope. Both are ever-present and yet always enigmatic. Details of who Pan is, who he used to be, and what he is planning are meted out in careful measure as the story builds upon itself.

Timely and relevant in an ever-shifting post 9/11 landscape, Off the Grid addresses the rise of anatomical technologies, state control masked as security, and the proliferation of invisible surveillances. With deeply rooted philosophic foundations the book is underscored by an exploration of the existentially dislocated masculinity of the modern world, as Pan struggles deeply with what he calls "the void" inside.

Courtney confidently interweaves the political and the comedic alongside Pan's narrative to achieve an elusive literary layering, and in-so-doing manages to find a voice for that ineffable void within Pan, a voice that proves singularly unique, with an unexpected tenderness, and always punctuated with a striking wit. Pan's ornery sarcasm drips off the page, makes you laugh-out-loud, and you will find yourself rooting for him from the start.

The world that Pan inhabits is precarious, tychistic, and rapidly slipping through his fingers. Everywhere he turns are reminders that the change around him is reaching its apex, and if he isn't careful he will not be forgotten, but worse, he will join the ranks of the disappeared, as he begins to uncover the truth of LifeLine, whose origins are reminiscent of a pre-engineered Patriot Act, awaiting the political opportunity that 9/11 provided. Teeming with suspense and a building tension from the opening pages we are left in constant anticipation about whether Pan is guiding his own fate or being pulled in by the undercurrents. With a sense of desperation and urgency off-set by an eerie ominousness, we know that everything churning underneath for Pan is about to boil over.

The author never falls prey to literary archetypes or cliche, as he has artfully written characters who are always fully realized, even when not fully likeable. Pan is magnetic, full of contradiction, and might yet have an ace or two up his sleeves. Pan struggles to find a balance between his passion and his nihilism as he confronts the system that demands that choice. Fight, or be forgotten. Love, or walk away. Pan will constantly surprise you, and you will find that the void within him finds a foothold in you as he wrestles with those choices.

Pan struggles to decide if Darcy, a woman from great privilege and the superficiality that comes with it, herself full of contradiction, will ever be able to cross the divide between them and come to see some of the truths Pan has uncovered. The themes of the book are masterfully layered throughout as Pan questions whether Darcy could possibly fill that void, or will only add to it, and that conflict is echoed in his dealings with The Institution.

Not ever fully sure if Pan is one step behind or one step ahead of how his world is folding down around him, and never sure of what fate awaits him, the reader comes to deeply care for Pan. You are infuriated by the injustices levelled against him, and fearful of the sway of forces that surround him. Pan is the kind of figure who is alone in a room full of people, and you feel a painful longing for him to find reprieve from his isolation, for a connection that is meaningful. Yet through it all, we also trust Pan, that he might yet find his way out, find himself, and might yet be smart enough to make it.

Structurally reminiscent of Orwell, littered with a sensory imagery that recalls Hemingway, and punctuated by graphic sex for good measure, Off the Grid is a heartbreaking work of fiction that eludes easy categorization. It is reverential, remorseful, tragic, deeply nostalgic, yet always entertaining. Off the Grid is sure to alienate all the right people as it proves itself an important addition to the conversation. Pan will stay with you, and his journey will continue to haunt you.

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