Gods above, this was one incredible ride! I finished it in just under 24 hours – and it only took me that long because I had to break for Monday’s workday. But Imaginary Corpse is pretty literally unputdownable.
My mind is so blown.
Imaginary Corpse is the book I didn’t know I wanted. No: didn’t know I needed. I’ve read stories by younger authors, but this is the first book that has ever struck me as Millennial Fantasy, as a book written by someone who understood my generation, for people of my generation. What the hell does that mean, you ask? It’s everything – from the cynical-optimistic voice of the narrator Tippy, to the casually diverse cast of fabulous characters; the normalisation of the question ‘What are your pronouns?’, to the wry black humour; the acknowledgement of trauma, and the rock-solid bonds tying friends and Friends together; the defiant absurdity that’s nonetheless delighted to poke fun at itself – and the sheer awe and wonder and magic of the human imagination, and all that it can create.
I mean – let’s look at my exhibit A for this argument. Tippy, being a yellow plushie dinosaur, has a unique form of self-care: he takes a turn in a dryer. As in, a tumble-dryer machine.
Please point me towards the Millennial who will not read that and immediately think ‘#MOOD’? The moment I described that part of the novel, my husband (a fellow Millennial, ftr) instantly lit up with an ‘I want to go in the dryer too!’ There is just something about the idea of it – the wackiness, the cleverness, the appeal to how many of us are so tired and long for some self-care ourselves – that strikes a chord I haven’t seen struck before.
The entire book is like that. I can’t drop too many examples because honestly, the sheer delight of discovering them for yourself is not something I want to deprive fellow readers of – but the tumble-dryer is the least of it. Superheroines and villainesses making out in alleyways. Big Business. A literally American eagle. Again and again this book made me giggle or laugh out loud as Hayes spun older tropes into something fresh and clever and invented completely new ones – many of which playfully mock themselves and invite you to join in on the fun. I could not stop myself from sharing snippets with the hubby while I was reading, because so many lines or concepts were just that brilliant. Discovering just what it is hard-boiled detectives drink in Playtime Town when they’ve had a rough day – I think that was the moment I knew I was going to love this book hard.
(And no, I’m not going to tell you what they drink. Read the book yourself to find out!)
Imaginary Corpse is not a comedy, though. Hayes’ twisty brilliance might remind me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – except with magic instead of spaceships – but he also tackles harder and darker topics like a yellow triceratops charging at a bully. As mentioned above, this is a book where the first questions upon meeting a new person are ‘What can I call you, and what are your pronouns?’ The latter is hardly a common question in most spaces, but in Tippy’s word of the Stillreal, it’s completely normalised. Consent and choice are big themes here too, in many nuances, right down to the sanctity of personal space and gaining permission before entering someone else’s. Hayes’ characters face failure and grieving, and given the premise – that the Stillreal realm is populated by Friends who lost their creators in one way or another, usually to some flavour of tragedy – many, if not all of them, have trauma. Tippy himself has trauma-triggers – and this is known and accommodated by his friends. There’s no judgement here for survivors, no matter what scars they made it through with.
And I want to stress again: all of this is normalised. This isn’t Hayes hitting anyone over the head with The Liberal Agenda; it’s just how his characters talk to each other, and live alongside one another. I’m sure he made the conscious decision to write this book the way he did, but there’s nothing preachy or lecturing about any of it. Hayes makes such a small deal about it that I had to do a double-take more than once – it all flows so naturally that if you’re not on the lookout for it, you might not even consciously notice. It’s just one more feature of a really, really good story.
Which, can we take a second to appreciate how amazing this whole premise actually is??? Ideas – not just imaginary friends, but fictional characters and comics that were never drawn and movies that were never made – that are abandoned or lost have their own dimension, and their own societies, and our first-person narrator is a stuffed yellow triceratops. I want to see the inside of Hayes’ imagination so badly, because I have no idea how anyone could come up with all of this. I mean, the little premise summary I just wrote for you is very simplistic, because Spoilers, but – the way a Person’s experiences affect their Friends and Ideas, even once those Ideas move to the Stillreal; the existence of memories and future-memories; all the ways in which new Friends can be created and come into being… Does Hayes have a background in psychology? Because all of this reminded me of Pixar’s Inside Out (2015), except richer, darker, and more complicated (and diverse). I remember reading that one of the impacts of that movie was that it gave children struggling with mental health issues a way of expressing what they were feeling – doctors and nurses were giving them toys of those characters with which they could explain what was going on inside them. Imaginary Corpse is kind of like that in the way it pulls from psychology and neurology and social sciences as the inspiration/basis for some of its worldbuilding. It is, to say the least, fucking impressive.
This is also a fiercely hopepunk story. I mentioned already that the characters, particularly Tippy himself, have to deal with some dark stuff; with failures and regrets and even depression. It’s not grimdark – there’s too much loveliness, too much to giggle about, too many reasons to hug this book to your chest and not let go. But there are darker parts, parts that will rip your heart out, parts that will make you tear up if you have a working soul. Parts that tap a little too deeply into the feeling of hopelessness that is the undercurrent of so many lives right now. But Imaginary Corpse…
Look: there’s this amazing scene, in Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, where September, the main character, meets a soap golem who explains that over time, a person’s bravery gets tarnished, and dirty, and worn-out. And every now and then you have to scrub it clean so it can be all shiny again and you have the bravery and strength to take on the world again.
The Imaginary Corpse is a book that washes your bravery clean again. It gently wipes at your eyes and heart and shows you how to feel wonder again, too; how to find joy in beautiful things and wonderful people and all the incredible things an imagination can do. And it does it while acknowledging how fucking hard that can be, which is what makes the message so potent and so true.
I am slowly assembling a ‘best fantasies of the decade’ list, to be published near the end of the year. Imaginary Corpse is going to be on it.
You are not ready for this level of awesome. But you should absolutely read this book anyway.