Mar 21

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

I did not like The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. That’s an understatement. I found the book to be annoying, miserable and nihilistic. Anyone else would have put the novel down after 50 pages, maybe at the point where an 11-year-old boy is repeatedly raped by a nun, or a girl is beaten black and blue (by the same nun). But no… I kept on going. I’m not proud of this, my ability to persevering with a book I actively dislike is an ongoing issue in my reading life.

The story opens with the abandonment of two babies – a boy and a girl – in a Montreal orphanage during the winter of 1910. As they grow up it becomes clear that these children have exceptional talent. The boy, nicknamed Pierrot, is a piano prodigy and the girl, nicknamed Rose, is a brilliant dancer and has a keen sense of comic timing. Together they are sublime. So much so that the Mother Superior of the orphanage, in an attempt to earn some coin, sends the two children out to the homes of the rich to perform. Inevitably Pierrot and Rose fall in love. Subsumed by happiness the two plan to forge a destiny together once they’re old enough to leave the orphanage.

But as the Mother Superior points out quite early in the piece —

— happiness always led to tragedy. [The Mother Superior] had no idea why people valued the emotion and pursued it. It was nothing more than a temporary state of inebriation that led a person to make the worst decisions. There wasn’t a person who had experienced life on this planet who wouldn’t admit that sin and happiness were bedmates, were inextricably linked. Were there ever any two states of being that were so attracted to each other, were always seeking out each other’s company? They were a match made not in heaven but in hell.

What an optimistic view of humanity and the world. If only Heather O’Neill didn’t agree with such fundamentalist fervour as evidenced by the abuse she inflicts on her two protagonists.

As I noted earlier, a Sister at the orphanage, Eloise, repeatedly rapes 11 year-old Pierrot and belts the living shit out of Rose if she sees the girl speak to, look at or think of Pierrot. (At one point the beatings get so bad that the Mother Superior is compelled to stop Eloise. Can’t have the rich people noticing the bruises on their star performer). And just as Pierrot and Rose are nearing the end of their “stay” at the orphanage they are abruptly separated – without either knowing where the other has gone. Pierrot becomes the ward of an old, rich man looking for companionship (fortunately it’s platonic). Rose becomes the Governess of two little shits whose father runs organised crime in Montreal.

Throughout all this, the Mother Superior’s words come back to haunt Rose and Perriot. Spending three hundred pages looking for each other they will face all sorts of awfulness – whether it’s drug addiction or poverty or having to feature in pornos to earn money. And even when they do, finally, cross paths there’s no happy ending to be found.

This is a wretched, cynical novel. There’s an attempt on O’Neill’s part to obscure the rot by adopting a twee, quirky tone and presenting peculiar set-pieces such as Rose search for Pierrot, which involves checking out the shows of all the clowns performing in Montreal. It’s a style, that when it works, can create a fairy-tale / story-book type atmosphere. When it doesn’t work, like here, it reads as artificial and insincere. As a consequence it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Rose and Perriot because nothing about them seems real or grounded even though they are exposed to some awful shit. Perriot’s otherworldly brilliance at the piano – he just has to tickle the keys and people fall in love with his music – and his Byronesque attitude toward women had me wanting to kick him in the nuts. As for Rose, O’Neill does her character a disservice by having men initially view her as plain or ugly or OK, but not pretty and then, moments later, seeing her as the most beautiful creature on the planet. So much so that rich and powerful (and generally vile) men can’t help but be besotted with her.

I did wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt to subvert the star-crossed lover narrative that we’ve see in recent novels like The Night Circus – which this novel is compared to – All the Light We Cannot See. A romance we want to see succeed because the two lovers are so perfect for each other, but for external reasons fails to happen. O’Neill, contrary to those books*, does allow Rose and Pierrot to marry and have a life. But because the philosophy of this novel is that happiness ends in disaster and tragedy, it (spoilers) ends badly.  Rather than imagine what it might have been like for our two star crossed lovers to have a life together, O’Neill provides us with an answer – it sucks. If that is the point of this book, then fuck that for a game of cards. Or to be less sweary, I have no problems with depressing fiction – I’ve just praised a couple of unhappy novels recently – it just has to be earned, and as Rose and Pierrot are abused from a young age, with only the smallest of reprieves from time to time, nothing seems natural about their relationship.

Still, it would appear that other people do like a bit of misery and nihilism in their love stories, given the book’s popularity and it’s long listing on the Bailey’s Book Prize.** I, on the other hand, should not have finished this book. But I did. Let’s never speak of it again.

* Though I may be misremembering The Night Circus.

** Talking of the Bailey’s longlist I’ll be interested to see what others make of it – that is some of the book bloggers I follow who are reading the longlist. And when I say book bloggers, I really mean Simon Savidge.

Mar 21

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

This is one of those psychological thrillers of the waiting for the penny to drop variety.

I’ve actually read Pinborough’s work before, a forgettable Torchwood novel, and would have passed this one by if not for a decent write-up in the New York Times. Even without that review I might have read the book anyway given all the hype the novel has generated in the last month or so. Pinborough has been writing since 2009 but this would appear to be her breakthrough novel.

I wanted to love this novel – I like a good, twisty psychological thriller – unfortunately unlike so many others who have raved about Behind Her Eyes, the book fell flat for me. The writing is far superior to the pedestrian prose of her Torchwood book (possibly not the greatest bar to jump), and yet as can often be the case with fiction that relies on a significant twist, the sort that publishers and publicists milk for all its worth by asking reviewers NOT TO SPOIL THE ENDING, the reveal is either (a) never going to match the build up or (b) the characters are so dull that even if the twist is a stroke of genius it has little impact. Behind Her Eyes is the latter. Unlike a Gone Girl where the novel’s success is as much about the reveal as it is about the sick relationship between the protagonists, I never felt the same with Louise – a single mother drawn into a web of passive aggressive intrigue between her new boss and her boss’s wife.

The actual premise is the best bit of the novel. What if you were chatted up by a strange man in a bar who the following day you discover is actually your new boss. It all falls apart though when we are introduced to the boss’s wife whom, from the outset, is a sandwich short of a picnic as evidenced by the convoluted revenge game she’s playing with her husband, Louise a key part of her plan.  Once you realise the wife is manipulating events the novel becomes a waiting game, which, again, is OK as long as the characters are interesting and the situation is dynamic and there’s an actual sense of danger. But Louise – who I found reasonably sympathetic in the early part of the novel – keeps making idiotic decisions of the throw the book against the wall variety and once you stop giving a shit as to what happens to Louise you either stop reading the book or impatiently wait for the twist to happen. And then it does and you realise you’d already guessed it and while the second twist is surprising – because there’s always a second twist – sadly none of it justifies the time spent reading the story.

Mar 17

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison

I loved The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. It was raw and unfiltered, uniquely exploring the issue of female reproductive rights in the middle of an apocalypse. I loved it so much that after reviewing it on my blog I suggested the book to Kirstyn for The Writer and the Critic podcast. I then applauded when it deservedly won the Philip K. Dick award and added volume to that cheer when a mainstream publisher bought the first novel (originally released by an indie press) and contracted author Meg Elison to write a second book in the same world. Well… to be absolutely honest, I was hoping the Unnamed Midwife would be a standalone story. Still, when The Book of Etta was announced I pre-ordered it immediately because reservations aside I was curious to see how Elison would develop her world.

The Book of Etta is set one hundred years or so after the events of Midwife. The community that the midwife forms at the end of the first book has grown, slowly, with only one or two viable births a year. Known as “Nowhere” (a possible riff on the literal translation of utopia)* the small colony has adopted a hive structure where a single women is tended to by a group of men. Unsurprisingly, and given the context of a world where human extinction is a real possibility, the matriarchy places great significance on reproduction. Healthy women are expected to fall pregnant even though it might be a death sentence. Cue Etta. She’s less interested in procreation and more interested in saving the lives of women who – outside of Nowhere – are being captured, abused and exploited by men. Inspired by the unnamed midwife (a totemic figure for the community of Nowhere) she spends most of her time outside the colony, searching and raiding for items of value and more importantly freeing enslaved women. Like the Unnamed Midwife, Etta disguises her biology, dressing as a man. It’s more than just a façade though. When on the road, facing violent men, Etta becomes Eddy and is identified as a “he”. As Eddy she becomes increasingly aware of the Lion, the ruler of Estiel (you know it as St Louis) and his harem of opium addled women.

On the surface, The Book of Etta is more conventional and straightforward than its predecessor. Where the Unnamed Midwife was told in first person (diary entries) but also jumped to an omniscient third person as part of a framing story, The Book of Etta is a third person narrative from first to last page. And where the plot of Unnamed Midwife was shaggy and loose with no specific direction in mind (other than survival and spreading the message of birth control) The Book of Etta, with its introduction of the Lion (as evil a bastard as you’re likely to meet) has a far tighter and structured narrative – inevitably developing into a struggle between good and evil.

But that’s on the surface. What makes The Book of Etta more than just a confrontation between Eddy / Etta and those who would continue to abuse and enslave women is the conversation of gender that’s threaded throughout the story. If The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was distinctive for dealing with reproductive rights in the aftermath of an apocalypse, The Book of Etta is unique for exploring gender identity while human civilisation is on the wane. “Eddy” isn’t just an escape hatch, a personae that allows Etta to forget or ignore what’s expected of her back home, he’s also the gender that Etta finds she identifies with the most. But more then just a discussion about what it is to be trans in a world where day to day survival is not a given, Elison highlights the instinctive prejudice that results for a society where biology has greater priority than gender. Etta / Eddy who should be sympathetic to others like her is, in fact, the opposite. When Eddy finds himself attracted to Flora who presents as a woman but has the biology of a man, she feels betrayed, angered that Flora hid who she truly was – as if the “Flora” persona was a disguise. Eddy’s struggle to accept Flora as a mirror of his own circumstances leads Flora to observe:

“You [Eddy] didn’t see me because you think there are only two kinds of things in the world. Men and women. Good and evil. Slavers and rescuers. You’ve seen more of the world than I have, but you know less about it. There’s more in this world than you can even dream about, Eddy. You’re only not seeing it because you won’t.”

This tension between the binary and the fluid, between how we view ourselves and how we views others, is the true strength of the Book Etta. It’s a tension that expresses itself in the politics and power dynamics of this burgeoning world. Eddy / Etta can’t abide the thought of trading with slavers even if it means savings the lives of women. The leaders of Nowhere have a more nuanced take. And this opposition – the binary worldview of Eddy / Etta with the more fluid, complicated position of her friends and families – propels the last third of the narrative and provides for a gripping climax.

The Book of Etta is not as good as The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. But it’s like saying that chocolate ice-cream is not as good chocolate ice-cream with chocolate chips. If I had a reservation it was with the addition of a mystical / vaguely supernatural element, specifically involving the Mormon community that Eddy / Etta encounters and the healing powers of their prophetess. It’s not uncommon for post-apocalyptic narratives to feature psychic or otherworldly powers… but I found it an uncomfortable fit in the world of the Unnamed Midwife. Still, it’s a minor quibble. This is a fantastic, insightful and complex discussion about gender identity and I eagerly await the third book in the trilogy.

*Yes, I know the literal translation is “no place” or “good place” depending on how you compound your syllables.

Mar 15

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I struggled to figure out the point of this book.

I understand that Gaiman has a love for the Norse myths, but this project, which essentially re-writes those myths with a Gaiman gloss, seems indulgent to me. Not that I’m familiar with the source material (the Edda), but from what I could tell from a quick skim of the internet, there is nothing new or revolutionary or revisionist about these stories. When Gaiman said he wanted to be true to the original tales, he means it. So if you’re familiar with the source material I’m not sure how much you’ll get out of this book other than the curiosity of what bits Gaiman changes and how he retells some famous Norse moments.

Having said that, if you haven’t read the source material, which may be most of us, it is entertaining and if the book leads people to the Edda that can’t be a bad thing. Personally, though, I’d rather read original Gaiman than something that requires a microwave.

Mar 14

Follow Me Into the Dark by Felicia C. Sullivan

Follow Me Into the Dark opens with thirty-something Kate setting aflame the hair of her step-father’s mistress Gillian. It’s possibly the least fucked-up thing to happen in the novel.

In 2013 Felicia C. Sullivan wrote a memoir about her childhood. I’ve not read the book but if the back cover copy is anything to go by Sullivan’s upbringing involved living among drug dealers, “substitute fathers” and a mother who was prone to overdosing. This less than ideal childhood led her toward a life of drug and alcohol abuse. It was also a clear inspiration for Follow Me Into the Dark, a “literary”* horror novel that, at its core, supports the argument that abuse is cyclical. In this case it’s abuse inflicted and suffered by three generations of mothers and daughters.

Novels about abuse, especially when it covers the gamut, physical, sexual, verbal and involves children, are not my first choice of pleasure reading. But when they’re written this well, with a plot that takes surprising turns that, on reflection, have been carefully seeded and foreshadowed, it’s hard to look away. Sullivan’s argument that the abused often becomes the abuser isn’t a new insight – social theorists and psychologists have pointed this out for nearly fourty years – what’s disturbing in Sullivan’s depiction is how this abuse stems from a twisted and perverse form of love that works both ways. A mother’s desire to protect her daughter (even though that might include locking her in the basement or having her pretend to be someone else) and a daughter’s desire to be loved (trying to find sense in the abuse, adapting and rationalising the pain). It’s powerful and raw and told with a great deal of insight and pain. The following excerpt is from Ellie – daughter of Norah, mother of Kate – which captures a horrible self-awareness, a fatalism, an inability to escape the abuse she has suffered and the abuse she will, inevitably, doll out on her daughter.

I’ve outlived my best-by date. I accept that I will never scramble eggs. I will always burn or break toast. My skin will itch and blister after a man touches it. There will always be marks and stained sheets. I will never understand the nuances of dinner parties, where conversations require constant costume changes. I will never gnaw down to the bone. I will be cautious of birds. I will live in a series of homes and never see the deed. I will pin butterflies to the walls of my room to replace the mirrors that have been removed. The days will continue to leave their scars. I will never take my own life because I can’t bear the thought of writing the note. Instead, I’ll let others leave their marks. I’ll open the Bible and read the book without understanding the story. It doesn’t matter. In the end, the men will save. This is what I was told. What I needed to know was this: my role was to own the books and believe. Men would do the work.
I think of my house and I see my daughter reaching for me as I fade and fall out of the frame. All I’ve got is a mouth that has a taste for metal and a desire to leave my three-year-old daughter and go.

There is quite a bit of violence toward women throughout the course of the novel. Gillian’s brother – the mistress of Kate’s stepfather – is a serial killer who turns the remains of his female victims into dolls. At first the whole serial killer subplot seems like Sullivan is over-egging an already rancid pudding. But, no, there’s a reason for this that links back to the themes of the novel. A reason that is revealed, like most of the truths in this book, in a genuinely surprising manner. Whether it’s Kate, Gillian, Norah or Ellie, Sullivan provides the reader with a sympathetic portrayal of these women, even when they do the most awful acts. She doesn’t demonize them, she doesn’t resort to straw-woman. And yet, as the title suggests, this is a dark novel. The only ray of hope, and it is slender, is that the cycle has been broken, that a daughter to be born may escape what her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother experienced.

I don’t want to end this review by saying that this won’t be a novel for everyone. First off, it’s a stupid statement – I mean what book is for everyone – and second off I don’t support dissuading people from reading terrific writing even if the subject matter is difficult. Literary or otherwise, this is a fantastic horror novel. When the writing and story-telling is this good it’s worth peering into the darkness.

* On Twitter the critic Ron Charles recently defined literary thriller as “a technical term that we critics use to describe a thriller that we’ve read.” How true.

Mar 13

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is the best horror novella / work of fiction of the year. Am I calling it early? Abso-fucking-lutely.

The opening of the novella not only sets the scene but almost immediately induces a level of tension that shouldn’t be possible so early in the piece. A woman – Amanda – lies dying in the hospital. Her world is dark, her sheets are rough and the only indication she has that a small boy is sitting next to her is that he keeps murmuring into her ear. Why is the boy there? Why is this boy so insistent that Amanda find that moment when the “worms come into being?” What do these worms have to do with dead horses, toxins seeping into the mud, and the migration of tainted souls? But most importantly of all – where the FUCK is Amanda’s daughter Nina!?

No, seriously, where is she?

The novella’s title gives you a sense of the tone. Amanda’s life is ebbing away and so there’s a dreamlike aspect to her interactions with this small boy and his probing questions. But there’s also a rhythm to the prose, propelling you through Amanda’s memory of the few days / weeks, as she pieces together what’s happened to her, her husband and her daughter Nina. It’s a memory fraught with doubt and uncertainty, often undermined by the creepy boy – his name is David – whose questions become an interrogation.

The novellas compact length means that Schweblin can sustain and amp up the tension and fear. The novella’s structure – essentially an extended dialogue between Amanda and David – would make for one terrifying audio play. I had to take a deep breath after I finished Fever Dream. I even took a pause before jumping onto the next book. If there’s a more propulsive and frightening work of horror fiction written this year I’ll be stunned.

And kudos to Megan McDowell for her superb translation.

Mar 11

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his début novel, The Sympathiser. The Refugees is his first collection of short fiction and it is truly magnificent.

The title is a clear enough indication of what to expect – stories about the refugee experience – except that Nguyen provides a variety of point of views on the subject. These are stories told from the perspective of the refugee looking to start a new life in a new society, the children of these refugees searching for their own identity, and those who never get to leave, who dream longingly about joining those who are ‘free’. The experience here is specific to Vietnamese refugees coming to America post the war, but clearly it resonates with what we’re seeing now in the Middle East. Nguyen do not gloss over the fact that refugees bring their culture with them, that they may never truly assimilate. And, as he illustrates in a couple of the stories, this does create a challenge for the children who are, to some extent, looking to integrate with the broader community.

What’s also powerful about this collection is that it deliberately does not sensationalise the horrors of leaving a war-torn country or – more importantly – doesn’t overhype the racism and prejudice that refugees face in their new home. In other words there are no strawmen here. (That’s not to say refugees and immigrants don’t experience racism and discrimination, it’s just that Nguyen isn’t interesting in tackling what, to some degree, is an obvious symptom of coming to a country and not fully adopting that country’s values… or at least the food they eat). This is a book that shows, with great clarity and poignancy and some gorgeous prose, that the refugee experience is more than just a narrative of horror and drama and tension of escape and the promise of freedom, but rather the almost mundane practicalities of what to do once you get there.

Expect to see The Refugees on literary awards lists later in the year.

Mar 10

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Iowa in the late 1990s and a video store clerk – Jeremy – is made aware by the local schoolteacher – Stephanie – that her copy of Targets – a Corman / Bogdonavich film starring Boris Karloff which I’ve never seen but heard a shitload about via Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast – has been tampered with. Jeremy intends to check it out, but like all twenty somethings working in a video store in the late 1990s he forgets and is only reminded a week or so later when a second customer tells him that her copy of She’s All That – remember when Freddie Prinze Jr. was a thing? – also has “another movie” on the tape. Jeremy takes a closer look and discovers that, yes, a scene has been spliced into the film – shot in black and white and featuring an almost empty barn and the sound of someone breathing. Checking out Targets he finds something similarly disturbing. What’s more alarming is that Sarah Jane – owner of the video store – recognises the barn as one just outside of town…

What I loved about Universal Harvester is how Darnielle takes what could have been a corny psychological thriller and transforms it into a meditation on loss and memory and absent mothers. I fully expected that the task of tracking down who has edited his or her weird films into copies of mainstream movies would end with Jeremy strapped to a table in the very same barn about to be tortured and filmed and re-edited into a copy of Joe’s Apartment. But this is John Darnielle and while I haven’t read Wolf in White Van, I’ve heard only good things (the book was longlisted for the National Book Award). I shouldn’t have been surprised then when those strange black and white films change from something creepy and odd into a haunting symbol of loss.

In particular the loss of a mother. It’s a key link between two of the characters and the profound effect this loss, this absence, has on their psyche. Darnielle does land on the view that mothers provide a certain something that can’t be replicated by fathers. This could be seen as gender essentialism or it could be seen as a fact of parenthood – that mothers and fathers play different roles. That aspect may annoy some, but I found it heartfelt and honest.

The book’s structure is also interesting and unexpected but in a slightly more hit and miss way. The story is mostly told in third person, but every so often it abruptly switches to first person, the identity of whom is left unclear until the end. This creates a level of ambiguity. Can we trust what we’re being told? Our narrator in third person also has this knack of cutting away just as things are reaching a dramatic peak. A car accident and the fate of one of our heroes is left hanging as the narrative abruptly transitions to an extended flashback to a character’s childhood. While the flashback is critical to the theme and plot of the novel it’s also a momentum killer. And yet, in the last third these cut-aways – just like the black and white films they represent – work brilliantly to add a level of the unfathomable to a book that refuses to provide clear-cut answers as to why people do the things they do.

While there’s nothing straightforward about this novel – Darnielle never answers the pressing question why the book is called Universal Harvester. Yes… I know… Iowa = corn = combine harvesters… but why are they Universal?* – I never felt frustrated or unsatisfied. It’s because Darnielle clearly articulates his themes providing the reader with plenty to chew on. This is a haunting, quiet, character-piece that explores loss and absence and memory in a way that’s inventive and subtle and opaque.

*It’s been pointed out to me by Jon Blum that Universal Harvester is a brand name of combine harvesters from back in the day.  So that solves that mystery.**

** It’s also been pointed out to me that Universal Harvester could be a metaphor for death and loss.  Which seems obvious now…

Mar 09

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Oh Idaho, you are one shattering novel.

It’s a gentle shattering like a child tapping on the shell of a boiled egg. There’s no single punch to the gut but rather a gradual build-up that leaves you devastated. At the heart of the novel – and revealed early in the book – is the death of a six-year-old girl at the hands of her mother. But that isn’t what devastates. Rather it’s Ruskovich’s almost tender exploration of the years preceding and those that follow this one unimaginable moment.

In a way that’s both frustrating and yet fitting for a novel about forgiveness (not redemption) and love, Ruskovich never truly provides us with the details of what happened on that fateful day. We get snippets of information from Wade, the husband, who witnesses the after effects of the crime, but not the crime itself. When we meet Wade, now remarried to music teacher Ann, we discover that he’s suffering from early onset dementia, which is erasing what memories he does have of that day (not that he was ever chatty about it). We know that Wade and his wife – Jenny – were chopping and cleaning and collecting birch wood. We know that their daughters, Jenny and May, were horsing around as their parents worked, arguing and singing and swatting flies. And we know that Jenny took a break from all that birch in the front seat of the ute, that she was joined by May and that moments later, with the hatchet she used to clean the logs, Jenny murdered her youngest child. In the ensuing madness and horror her oldest daughter, June, ran into the woods never to be seen again.

The rest of Idaho is only partly about untangling that one irrational, violent, shocking moment. This is not a crime novel, or a psychological thriller with a startling reveal that exonerates Jenny or brings May (somehow) back from the dead. Rather it’s a character piece exploring the mental-state, the make-up, the motivations of Jenny and Wade from their perspective and that of others like Ann or Jenny’s cellmate Elizabeth who are drawn into their lives. Ruskovich achieves this by pushing the narrative forward and backward in time – the first meeting between Wade and Jenny… Ann’s initial encounter with Wade and his request that she teach him to play piano… June and May’s relationship days before the crime occurred… and forward in time… Jenny’s time in prison and her relationship and eventual friendship with Elizabeth… Ann caring for a gradually fading Wade… and in among these moments… vignettes dealing with the lives of people touched – even briefly – by the crime… the boy who June had a crush on… the old couple who first come across Wade, and his wife and their dead daughter – and it’s all presented to us in the most gorgeous, compassionate prose. There are no hard edges here. And no easy answers either.

For all the weightiness of the subject matter and the tragedy that shadows each sentence this isn’t a difficult book to read. Ruskovich’s brilliant control of language and her capacity to draw sympathetic characters makes for a novel that’s hard to let go of even while slowly, but surely, it tap, tap, taps away at your emotions.

Mar 08

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

So what to make of Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn. It’s already been described as the first post-Trump novel, which is a tad ironic given the President – not named – in Erickson’s near future (the book is set in 2021) is female and it’s under this female President (look, we know it’s Hillary) that America fractures into a “disunion”. Not even Erickson, for all the weirdness that occurs in Shadowbahn, could imagine a Trump Presidency. That said, he has no difficulty describing a broken America.

And that’s basically what this book about. The death of America – or at least the ideals and dreams that famously underpin the country. Erickson employs a multitude of metaphors to describe this. The Twin Towers reappear in South Dakota twenty years after they were destroyed. Music begins to vanish from radios, from CDs from people’s memories. On the 93rd floor of the newly minted Twin Towers, Jesse Presley – the still-born brother of Elvis – wakes up on a board table. And in an alternative history, JFK never gets the Presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention, losing it to Adlai Stevenson. Each ingredient, as disparate and strange as they are, all hit the same basic message. America is no longer the country, the dream, its people thought it was – assuming it ever stood for anything, assuming there was ever a consensus.

Initially, Erickson makes this point with burning hot prose and some wicked humour. The first third of the novel is terrific. Not just the appearance of the towers, but the reluctance of officials to take jurisdiction and responsibility. There’s this laugh out loud moment where the Attorney General forces a soon to be retired sheriff to enter the Towers.

“I believe,” says the attorney general, with the faintest trace of a smile that the sheriff would love to stick a gun in, “the whole wide world has come to the conclusion that you’re the perfect person for this job.”

“I believe the whole wide world has no idea whatsoever who I am,” she answers.


And I did love the sections set in an alternative history with JFK standing silent at the National Convention watching a political dynasty fade before his eyes.

But the book is also a nonsensical whirlwind of… I’m not sure what… featuring on the nose imagery such as the scorched grave of the twin-towers and a bewildering set-piece involving a Sonark (the audio equivalent of a lighthouse). If you’re obsessed with American music and particularly the work of Elvis – I’m not – there are passages here that are going to resonate like a well tuned something or other. Otherwise you either go along for the ride or give up. Because there’s very little actual story to hang your hat on and nothing even remotely linear about the plot. Yes, there are characters – Parker and Zema, a brother and sister who hold the only source of music that still exists in America – but they drop in and out of the novel on a whim. It’s a frustrating book. What it says about America, this idea that there never was a dream or set of ideals to aspire to, and even if there was it certainly died the day the Towers fell, is powerful – and yes very relevant in a political environment where Make America Great Again is the catch-phrase. But I’m not sure Erickson pulls it off. It feels like he’s struggling against the basic structure of a novel, at times happy to go back to a narrative, and other times ignoring what little story he’s created.

For all that though I admire Erickson’s ambition. To somehow sum up the rot at the heart of American in just over 60,000 words. If his acknowledgements are anything to go by this wasn’t an easy book to sell (not shocked at all) but I’m glad that a publisher took a punt with it. Because while this is a befuddling novel, one that goes on tangents galore, there’s something exciting about an author writing without any net. Maybe if I loved music more, or gave more of a crap for Elvis, this book might have been a greater success. As it is, it’s a failed but fascinating experiment.

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