Review: "The Nobody People" is like a literary X-Men novel for the Trump era

The X-Men are often cited as a pop culture metaphor for the struggles of persecuted peoples in the face of bigotry. But the allegory is far from perfect. It's barely even present in the foundational DNA of the earliest comics. The idea of "mutants" was initially just an excuse to skip over the origin stories and get straight to the super-powered superhero antics. These days, we commonly hear comparisons between Magneto and Professor X to Malcolm X and MLK. Even though it's, erm, not quite accurate. And even though Magneto started out by literally calling his team "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants."

But Bob Proehl's new novel, The Nobody People, takes the opposite approach. Proehl is a friend of mine — I even wrote a song to help him promote the book, before I actually I read it — and he'll pretty openly admit that he envisioned it as a sort-of love letter to the X-Men. Whereas the X-Men began as pulpy superhero comics that eventually mutated into a political metaphor, The Nobody People starts with the metaphor, and mutates into a powerful personal drama. Here, the super-powered individuals are known as Resonants, and at the start of the novel, their presence is largely hidden from the modern world. The first part of the book mostly follows war correspondent Avi Hirsch, an amputee who learns that his biracial daughter is one of those powered Resonants; once they're outed, the book shifts into a sort of Bildungsroman, with a series of episodes that follow the logical progression of what always happens when a marginalized group tries to claim their own tiny corner in a world full of ignorance of hate. There are friendly Homeland Security agents who still do terrible things; well-intentioned journalists whose cozy relationships with money and power threaten their objectivity; and of course, plenty of powered people, struggling to survive. Moments that should be given more emotional heft—the breakups and deaths of beloved characters—pass by in a blip of a sentence with no deeper dwelling on the subject, because of course these terrible, heartbreaking things happen to persecuted people, and of course the world just keeps moving on without a care.

Nobody People by Thom Dunn

Proehl is much less interested in showing off superpowers than he is in what would happen should a group of super-powered people emerge amidst the social media-fueled vitriol of the Trump era. The book excels not in the fantastical world-building — although there is that — but rather in his acute observations of the way that different marginalized identities overlap and intersect and fall under different threats in the world. There are Resonants who look like normal wealthy white people, and those privileges cause friction with other characters like Fahima, the queer Muslim woman who also has the ability to speak to machines, or Hayden, a non-binary shape-shifter who relies on their powers as a sort of hormone-replacement therapy. Kay Washington, the wife of the aforementioned war correspondent and mother to a biracial Resonant, is an immigration lawyer who uses her legal skills to argue in favor of the personhood of Resonants whose only crime is being born. Of course, Kay and Avi have to deal with the fact that they used to worry about their daughter non-white appearance, before they realized she'd be under threat for other reasons. There's also a conspiracy theorist media mogul named Jefferson Hargreaves who spews any hateful rhetoric just to help him turn a profit, in a not-so-subtle nod to Alex Jones and InfoWars. Even the main antagonist, Owen Curry, comes off as a frighteningly empathetic school shooter-type—he's violent and terrifying, sure, but you also understand his hatred towards the "Damps" (non-powered people) once you see the way the world has manipulated him.

The Nobody People is the first of a two-book series, with the follow-up, The Somebody People, out in September 2020. As such, the conclusion is, well, hardly conclusive. At some points, it does feel it's already two books in one—Avi Hirsch's journey with his daughter before the Resonants go public, and then the aftermath of that, which has a lot more shifting perspectives. But if you want to read a superhero story that cares more about the intimacies of human relationships in a modern socio-political climate than it does about huge epic battle scenes, it's absolutely worth a read.

"The Nobody People" by Bob Proehl [Penguin Random House]

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