Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 259 pages
Published October 18th 2011 by Doubleday (first published October 18th 2010)

In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world.

And then things start to go wrong.

Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

“The dead had paid their mortgages on time…graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s…and superimposed the borders of the good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhood, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.”

Zone One is full of colorful melancholy descriptions, of varying levels of cerebral-ness, of an ashen, grey Manhattan post-plague apocalypse. Imagine a world where post “apocalypse-as-moral-hygiene,” as one character put it. A world where, “the dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living.”

I’d be remiss—not to mention completely misleading you—if I didn’t note that Zone One is not an action novel by any means. (Really, any reader of Colson Whitehead would probably figure this before even picking this one up from the shelf, so this is really a note for those as yet unfamiliar with his writing style. 😊)

**SPOILER** There is no real “action” in this novel so much as there’s deliberations, flashbacks, and several run-ins—some eerie, some semi-dramatic, some thought-provoking–with “skels,” the dead who are not quite dead. **SPOILER END**

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—depending on the reader—because it allows for the Sci-Fi-like descriptions of an otherworldly scenario that oft-times need to be drawn out in such a fashion. However, I yearned for some action after a while—some way to ignite the gloom of ash and barrenness described.

Mark Spitz, the main character and the only one to be constantly referred to by his whole name, spends his days as one of the sweepers for Zone One, killing “skels” with a bullet to the head and collecting the info on their IDs, when he can, so that information of plague victims can be turned into the higher ups and turned into spreadsheets of data. Can this data help them to get a larger view of what happened—how the plague spread so quickly, how it can be prevented in the future? That’s the hope and the new purpose of Mark Spritz’s days. Of course, his cynical humor, narration (which seemed to drone on at times with a cadence of monotony) and outlook on life help to pass the days as well.

The majority of the novel passes via cerebral recollections from Mark Spitz conveyed to the reader in all manner of both wryness and dryness—pulling a “skel” who looks like his old elementary school teacher into a body bag elicits pages of narration on what it was like for him as a young student. Shooting a gorilla-costume clad “skel” in the head elicits imaginings of what their life must’ve been like before the plague, why they were even in such an outfit, etc. The at times mundane musings of one of the last people on earth. Really, I suppose the mundane nature makes the novel all the more real. Wouldn’t our thoughts turn to the ordinary, the routine, the yesterdays and yesteryears, when all that stretches before you is a life more quiet and routine than the one you experienced in the loud, capitalistic, busy world that’s now fallen?

Of course, there’s always that bit of action in the end to get you through. Apocalypse junkies: never fear; there will be blood, gore, gunshots in the night…

Though relatively short, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was not necessarily a quick read, because of the density of its language and the vaguely cerebral, and at times seemingly intellectual ramblings. In reading this novel, you’re likely to get carried away in this deluge of narration. Wry narration laced with appealing satire here and there, shrouded in the grey gloom of overcast skies and a metropolis covered in soot and ash. Like this one as they fight their way through “skels”:

“She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt. These empty-headed fiends between Chambers and Park Place did not vote or attend parent-teacher conferences, they ate fast food more than twice a weeks and required special plus-size stores for clothing to hide their hideous bodies from the healthy. Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices. They needed to be terminated, and they tumbled into the dirty water beside Gary’s dead without differentiation.”

How’s that for a healthy injection of social commentary?

They say, “The third time’s the charm,” but with the conclusion of Zone One, after The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad, I think it’s safe to say I have immense respect for the obvious skill and intellect of Colson Whitehead, but his writing, overall, simply does not move me, yet, the ending did save this one. 3.5 stars ***

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Colson Whitehead He’s the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. Colson Whitehead has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

Whitehead’s latest book, The Underground Railroad, is an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor

Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 4th 1986 by Penguin Books (first published 1985)

A world away from Brewster Place, yet intimately connected to it, lies Linden Hills. With its showcase homes, elegant lawns, and other trappings of wealth, Linden Hills is not unlike other affluent black communities. But residence in this community is indisputable evidence of “making it.” Although no one knows what the precise qualifications are, everyone knows that only certain people get to live there—and that they want to be among them.

Once people get to Linden Hills, the quest continues, more subtle, but equally fierce: the goal is a house on Tupelo Drive, the epitome of achievement and visible success. No one notices that the property on Tupelo Drive goes back on sale quickly; no one questions why there are always vacancies at Linden Hills.

In a resonant novel that takes as its model Dante’s Inferno, Gloria Naylor reveals the truth about the American dream—that the price of success may very well be a journey down to the lowest circle of hell.

“Fences…Even at the university: big, stone fences – and why? The gates are open, so it’s not to keep anybody out or in. Why fences?…To get you used to the idea that what they have in there is different, special. Something to be separated from the rest of the world. They get you thinking fences, man, don’t you see it? Then when they’ve fenced you in from six years old till you’re twenty-six, they can let you out because you’re ready to believe that what they’ve given you up here, their version of life, is special. And you fence your own self in after that, protecting it from everybody else out there…”

Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills is a truly sharp and discerning glimpse into the modern-day class hierarchy embedded within black culture. Within the exploration of this quest for upward mobility and affluence, this novel featured some of the most true-to-life dialogue since Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and biting social commentary that rang so insightfully and authentically that it could only be true (not to mention witty enough to make me laugh out loud at the sheer truth and reality in it).

Written and set in the mid-1980s, the societal reflections here were absolutely superb, truly bordering on Southern Gothicism in the way that each explored the mores and values of this society—at times even based in the South. This element honestly made this novel and was the foundation from which the rest of the plot was built. I wasn’t expecting the Gothic elements at play here, so that was definitely an added delight. In fact, Linden Hills models itself as a play off of the classic Dante’s Inferno, with each street further and further down the hill of the neighborhood being more and more sought after, and also more and more corrupt. That was a truly clever play on Naylor’s part and lent so many added dimensions to this novel as the main characters “descended” further and further into the neighborhood.

For me, reading Linden Hills was often like sitting back at home in our old kitchen 20 years ago, listening to the “grown folk” shoot the breeze and discuss their woes over Bundt cake; it felt like home, and the authenticity of the subject matter, and characters’ reactions to it, felt like warm arms surrounding me as I “descended” into Naylor’s version of Dante’s hellish Inferno with them.

Here, our main protagonists are Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, two 20-year-old poets and best friends—one from the “wrong side of the street” and the other just barely inside the gates of Linden Hills himself, who get a lesson in what class lines mean to people in this neighborhood. Over the few days leading up to Christmas, Willie and Lester stare into the various faces of agony the people in Linden Hills try to hide. Watching them as they go about their lives, they begin to understand the motivations that keep them all in the rat race that is “keeping up with the Joneses.” Lester, who lives in Linden Hills, has already seen the inner workings of the neighborhood, the attitudes of its residents and the lies they cloak themselves in, thus he takes these lessons that Willie is busy learning for granted—in fact, he teeters throughout the book with being bored with such observations to, as the novel progresses, railing against them, because those very motivations that drive the Lindenites are also what keep him on the periphery of it all, neither fitting into their molds nor residing on the “right street” within Linden Hills. It is in this way that Gloria Naylor illustrates not only the racial lines but the class prejudices between us all, using the literal analogy of who’s from the right side of the street and who’s not, making the class lines drawn throughout this neighborhood both topographically and societally based. As they tear back the mask of Linden Hills, Willie and Lester begin to formulate their own theories on what shapes the world around them:

“You know, my grandmother called it selling the mirror in your soul…I guess she meant giving up that part of you that lets you know who you are…So you keep that mirror and when it’s crazy outside, you look inside and you’ll always know exactly where you are and wat you are. And you call that peace…These people have lost that, Willie. They’ve lost all touch with what it is to be them. Because there’s not a damned thing inside anymore to let them know.”

In tackling these major themes, Naylor also elegantly delves into social issues from the often-fragile bonds of marriage, to the separation of college-educated black women from their counterparts, to the line between “acting white” and “acting black,” among other themes:

“He would have found the comments that he was trying to be white totally bizarre. Being white was the furthest thing from his mind, since he spent every waking moment trying to be no color at all.”

I’ll admit that the writing style vexed me at times, usually at a crescendo of activity near the end of a chapter. My one note of criticism here is that it read as if Naylor was trying too hard to be lyrical, and it didn’t flow effortlessly. In fact, those moments in the novel often read as disjointed and convoluted, and I had to reread several of those passages for comprehension.

**SPOILER** I also thought that the ultimate climax of the novel—the fire that really brought the theme of Dante’s Inferno to the foreground was rushed and wasn’t leant nearly the amount of time and care as passages of far lesser importance earlier in the novel. That was absolutely a missed opportunity, because the ending is what resonates with readers—not to mention, this particular ending would have been the cherry on top of otherwise beautifully Gothic undertones in Linden Hills. **END SPOILER**

All in all, Gloria Naylor showed poetic lyricism and incisor-like insight in her execution of this novel, and it is a book that I would happily read again. It is because of the narrative undercurrents that I place this novel in the Southern Gothic arena (and I’ll give it that pass since part of it was based in Georgia), and it’s because of the bumbling “crescendo prose” that I deduct 1 star. BUT, despite that deduction, Linden Hills has absolutely earned its spot in my “Oh Where Have You Been All My Life” collection, because very rarely indeed will you come across a novel with such poise and bite as this one. 4 stars ****

 

*To see more reviews, follow The Navi Review on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour and on Twitter @thenavireview

 

Gloria Naylor was an African-American novelist whose most popular work, The Women of Brewster Place, was made into a 1984 film starring Oprah Winfrey.

Naylor won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983 for The Women of Brewster Place. Her subsequent novels included Linden Hills, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. In addition to her novels, Naylor wrote essays and screenplays, as well as the stage adaptation of Bailey’s Cafe. Naylor also founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and was involved in a literacy program in the Bronx.

A native New Yorker, Gloria Naylor was a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University. She was distinguished with numerous honors, including Scholar-in-Residence, the University of Pennsylvania; Senior Fellow, The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; the President’s Medal, Brooklyn College; and Visiting Professor, University of Kent, Canterbury, England. Naylor was the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for her novels and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for screenwriting.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Kindle Edition, 432 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Other Press (first published 2016)

“No one asked if I wanted to save Sebastian, but you all blame me for failing…”

I was truly excited to read and review this novel, Quicksand, by Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito. I first heard about it when it was just a deal to be translated—just another deal that happens every week in the publishing world. Yet, already I was intrigued by the premise and kept an eye out for it. So, you can imagine that when it happened across my path as an advance-read copy, wrapped in an unobtrusive (and probably at the time, incomplete) front cover, I leapt at it.

Maja Norberg is an eighteen-year-old last-year student at an expensive prep school in the center of a wealthy Swedish suburb. When she meets Sebastian, the son of billionaire Claes Fagerman, she’s immediately swept up in the ultra-cool image he’s always exuded, the weeks spent on his father’s luxurious boats and in all of the perks and toys, drugs and sex, emotional angst and obsession that their relationship evolves into. During this last year in school, the unthinkable happens, and Maja is left holding the smoking gun, literally, tearing her away from her comfy existence in the ‘burbs and placing her right in the middle of the media sensation court case of the century.

This novel started slowly, and in a tone that irritated me at first. Rather, Maja irritated me at first. But I pressed on, and I was very soon rewarded for it. For, all of the pieces of this narrative (this novel is told in interchanging sections) that seemed scattered at first, all moved together to complete the picture as a whole at a brilliant pace, pulling me in with it. This was a superb modern-day characterization of rich teens. Not a single character came off as a caricature or stereotype; they all filled the page, as if they were real people—flaws and all. Imagine Steig Larsson meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, and you’ve got a great idea of the sharp insight and cunningly skilled writing that you’re in for here, for this novel was everything that Dangerous Place was trying to be.

One of my favorite goodie takeaways from this novel was those thoughtful yet significant nuggets of truth and awareness here, which I so welcomed and respected. I love a sharp narrator, one who can pick apart the people around them. And that’s who Giolito gave her reader in Maja Norberg. Because, what you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find within these pages is that Quicksand features class tensions, the privilege of wealth and what happens when those taut lines cross one time too many.

“…you are wrong if you think a good story isn’t necessary. All you have to do is watch Idol or X Factor…to understand that the backstory is half the point. You all want to be surprised when the fatty sings like a star, you want to feel gratified when he made it ‘despite the odds,’ and you want to believe that it’s just bad luck that my parents don’t also live in Djursholm and work as doctors and lawyers, that it’s an injustice you are definitely not complicit in, but you can say it’s wrong and feel bad that we don’t take better care of our immigrants, if they would only be a little more Swedish, learn their new language faster, study a little harder, then the American dream would be just within reach. You love the American dream…”

In Quicksand, Malin Persson Giolito not only weaves an incredibly incisive and pulsating story, but she also manages to tackle serious social and economic issues with stunning clarity that made me sit up and re-read her passages. And, her socioeconomic commentary was presented in all of the best ways, so integrated into the actual story line that the latter would have seemed incomplete without the former, so dramatically illustrated by the sharp angles and trajectories at which these teenage lives crossed that it becomes a major undertone of the novel—a foundation of the plot rather than an accessory. Lines like, “Our problem isn’t immigrants, it’s this one percent with too much money,” cut deeply within the narrative and provoke thought all the more, because their brilliant placement within the narrative makes the reader feel that they’ve stumbled across a rare, half-hidden jewel, so that they long to find and pick up another.

I became so fully engrossed in Maja’s story, that I, too, gasped at turns of events in the courtroom and I, too, along with the judge and jury, weighed the evidence against her, trying to decide if I felt that she was guilty or not. Giolito was very skilled with the way that she handled this novel, because all parts of it—the courtroom, the jail/solitary confinement, and the backstory leading up to it—were all truly gripping, once the novel fully took off. Even the small annoyances at the beginning came together and re-presented themselves in a new light in the end, which I could only stand back and appreciate.

Giolito made me question my own instincts as to whether Maja was guilty or innocent, and I loved every minute of it. I was compelled to turn each and every page, to live these characters’ lives out with them until the very end, and for that I award the rarely given and always coveted 5 stars. *****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour!

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hardcover, 276 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Crown

 

Amy Engel’s adult fiction debut, The Roanoke Girls, turned out to be more than I’d hoped for in theme, in characters, in setting and narration. Despite all of the deep, dark and twisty subject matter that a lot of readers are commenting on—followers of my reviews know that I LOVE the dark and twisty stuff; keep it coming!—this novel really struck me as a breath of fresh air, because the characters were all so real in their flaws. They all struck me as real people, people who you might meet on the street and nod to with a passing wave, never knowing the secrets they’ve got stored in their closets at home…

Lane and Allegra Roanoke spent one unforgettable summer together that neither of them will ever forget, a summer that neither of them ever really recover from. The Roanoke Girls all share the same distinguishing features: long dark hair, piercing blue eyes and bodies that few men can ignore or deny. But it is something much deeper that binds them all together: they’re all branches of the same tainted tree. Those who have survived have fled, and those who have died aren’t done telling their secrets. When Lane Roanoke’s mother commits suicide (no spoiler), she ends up right back at the beautifully sprawling home that her mother had fled from, only to one day flee herself. And when Lane’s cousin goes missing, Lane is drawn back to that same ranch in Kansas, the one that those Roanoke girls can’t seem to get out of their blood, the one that they’re all bound to, even in death.

Admittedly, the big secret was alluded to early on, but, honestly, that really helped this novel, because it allowed Amy Engel to take the time to peel back the layers of the family and each of the Roanoke girls, to answer the more important question of why rather than what. With that said, the reveal was less in the subject matter at heart than it was in the history behind it and how it came to shape this family and those around them. The reveal was in the sharp realizations, in the dagger-wielding dialogue and in how the other sisters’ stories wove it all together. In short, the reveal was in how Engel finessed the story rather than beating her reader over the head with it, and for that, readers who love this one will rejoice.

Engel was smart with the way that she executed The Roanoke Girls, because she did away with the unnecessarily large and pompous word count in favor of telling a resonating story with no fat or fillers. That’s something that I always admire, an author’s ability to streamline, to edit, to give the reader what they need, unsubmerged in minutiae. Brava.

This novel was a truly exceptional glimpse into the inner workings of a family with too many secrets, hidden behind a façade that too much money has a way of affording. It was bitter at the edges and dark at its core, while being written in a tone that was both clear and sharp. Aware. And often, those are my favorite kinds of characters—the ones who aren’t fooled easily, who shake off the wool over their eyes without feeling the need to wallow in or latch onto innocence and sheltering. I loved Roanoke for that, for allowing the characters to unfold and to be themselves without shame, without cowardice, without the masking of politesse.

Engel’s poignancy can be found littered throughout the narration. Each and every chapter ending will leave you with a flutter in your chest, maybe a sharp intake of breath. I was hooked from the first chapter of this novel, a rare feat that I’m glad to have experienced with Engel. This novel pulls you into the Roanoke world completely, utterly. You surrender to the soft turns in plot and the biting cuts of dialogue that scrape away secrets and cut you to your core. I will say, however, that I wish I knew more about Allegra and Lane’s mothers. A certain diary probably would have helped—and I’ll leave that note at that.

Roanoke teems throughout with the theme of abuse, neglect, heart-wrenching love, and the effects of too much of all it. It forces the question, “What does a monster really look like? Is it some heinous thing you can spot from miles away, or is it something more subtle—something you can’t identify until you’ve already gotten too close?”
Can you tell one from the other?
Well, can you?
A strong and deserved 4 stars. ****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Crown, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: January 24th 2017 by Thomas Nelson

A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison proved to be the quintessential “crossover” novel. By that I mean that in reading this novel, it is clear that Addison has a background in law, among other things, and that writing was not his first profession. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and we see it all the time nowadays: novels about painters, journalists, lawyers, etc., written by authors with firsthand experience in the field who caught a fancy for writing somewhere along the line. Thus, as to be expected from its predecessors in like fiction, here you’ll find thorough and intellectual narration, complete with high-brow vocabulary and a thorough presentation of law and journalistic inside knowledge.

All in all, there was something standing in the way of me feeling anything for this book and its characters. Don’t get me wrong: it was pretty well-executed, the plot flowed (though there did seem to be a dividing point about midway through where the novel could’ve just stopped, been done, concluded—but it continued on with the lawsuit portion). I trusted the narrative voice, because it was so well-informed, so in the “know,” and so fluid in its interpretation of the cultural mores, political and economic lines in the sand and of the subject matter as a whole. Yet, it fell into the same trap that many other novels of this kind do: it was a shade too clinical, too fully immersed in cerebral, to pull me in completely. In short, though the story was well told, it lacked a soul.

There were so many moments where it was obvious that the reader should feel, should commiserate with the characters, but rarely could I do so, because A Harvest of Thorns was not executed in a tone that would allow me cross that line with them. It allowed me to appreciate the sophistication and intellectualism of this read, while forcing me out into the fringes of emotive, not quite there. The backstories seemed almost like an afterthought. They weren’t woven intricately into the fabric of the story, rather they were the fringe details allotted to make it pretty, to dress it up and give it some extra color. Because of the subject matter of this novel, that, again, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was just sort of there, neutral.

And, I absolutely must note two things: The first is that part of the plot seemed a little unrealistic, as though Addison felt it would create tension in the plot but didn’t really think that thought out to the end. Case in point, if our protagonist, Cameron, is so intelligent, sharp at his job, educated at Harvard, yadayada, why would he be so shocked to have “discovered” the reality of slave labor and other avenues of corruption within the realm of outsourcing apparel making to Southeast Asian countries? I mean, that seems like common sense to me—the very act of sending the jobs abroad in the first place reeks of corporate corruption and unethical motives, so why the staggering shock, Cameron? Come on. If you’re going to base half your plot off of an investigation, at least make the motives of the investigation plausible. Cameron, thankfully, was portrayed as a seasoned, incisive lawyer, but this plot angle undercut that for me just a tad. Not enough to take away stars, but enough to annoy slightly. (Though, I must also note that Corban Addison gets major props for writing such an otherwise strong, African-American leading man! We need more of those out there!)

Secondly, the intersection and presentation of the timelines was confusing, because they were not chronological, and, moreover, weren’t centered around just one storyline but many. I had to flip back to the beginning of the previous chapter many times to figure out where I was in the timeline. Was I going forward or backward in time with this next chapter? How’s that for pulling you out of a good read?

By far, the strength of this novel is found in its vivid detail of setting. As a reader, I felt that I was really in Bangladesh, in the corporate war room at the corporation under siege, that I was really in the courtroom during the legal mêlée. Corban Addison wrote on subject matter that he is very fluid and well-versed in, and that showed, much to his credit. If you’re a reader who’s in it for a good political thriller, who wants to be inside of the legal decisions and right on the flapping coattails of the protagonist going undercover and unearthing ugly truths, then this is the read for you! If you’re not here for the Kleenex reads, and you roll your eyes at melodrama, you’ve found your match! This is a Dan Brown meets Stephen L. Carter sort of read—you’ll get a little thrill of the chase and a little high-brow intellectualism all in one shot. This was a great read, but the lack of emotive skill lost it a star or so. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4, PURELY on the basis of the execution of everything not involving emotion :). ****

The Dumb House by John Burnside

Paperback, 198 pages
Published June 4th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)

“…the very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation…Such people would be the victims of an exquisite curiosity…”

To accurately assess this novel, I would first have to say that I have honestly never before encountered such an exquisitely void soul in fiction before. It was almost like staring into nothingness, a sensation I have not felt in reading in a long while, if ever.

John Burnside’s The Dumb House is a disturbing and unsettling narrative that crawls inside of the reader’s psyche and pushes the boundaries of what is socially, morally and, dare I say it, scientifically, acceptable. This work of short literary fiction burrows in and takes hold; before you know it, you’re on a deliberate and methodical exodus from the everyday, headed toward a climax that is as gripping as it is literarily brilliant and macabre.

This novel essentially starts with a bedtime story: Of all of the cold elaborate tales that Luke’s mother spun for him as a child growing up, the experiment of the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House, left its mark the deepest. This experiment, set in the ancient world of India, centered around one simple question that would haunt and motivate Luke for the rest of the novel: “whether a child is born with the innate, God-given ability to speak” or if it is a learned behavior. The Gang Mahalwas erected to find the answer to this question, tasking a court of mutes to care for newborn babies who were never to be exposed to human speech. Inside its walls there was only silence; the children never learned to speak. But the experiment, to Luke, feels incomplete. The nature of communication and its possible correspondence to the soul obsesses him. Did it correspond to the soul, and, if so, how could one see it? Could you touch it, see it, cut into it…

It is the tone of this novel that does a lot of the work. The tone of the protagonist, the tone of setting. Together, they build an intense fusion of the former’s analytical voyeurism and the latter’s airy and wraith-like qualities. It is like watching a madman inside a dream, complete with a Sleepy Hollow-like sort of haze that covers everything and turns the everyday interaction—a chance meeting at a library, an innocent letter sent through the post—into catalysts for sexual deviance and callous violence. The characters felt almost ethereal and had a dream-like quality, as if they, and likewise, their entire world, were constantly shrouded in a sepia haze. That almost-surreal quality reminded me of The Vegetarian, House of Leaves and even 1Q84.

Yet, for so many of us readers, it is the protagonist that we most care about. We want to feel what it is like to slip into their shoes; we want to crawl into their minds and understand the mechanisms of it. But, readers, beware. For in The Dumb House, Burnside managed to create a character who is as cold in his natural eloquence as he is almost detached in emotion in narration. The narrator is like a slick block of ice, rounded at the edges so as not to be overtly or obviously menacing and dangerous to the outside word, to the everyday onlooker. For some, the inner workings of his mind will utterly intrigue. Others will find him utterly deplorable. For there were two things about Luke that I slowly began to grasp as the narrative went on: he suffers from “Rich and Entitled Syndrome” as much as he does from severe ego maniacal delusions. He believes himself to be always laboring under the guise of curiosity and exploration of what it means to be human, even as he slowly destroys the humanity around him in search of this purpose. And this delusional quality is what made the narration so piercing, because it was consistently eloquent and disturbingly calculating in the coldest of manners simultaneously.

“…how easy it would be to find a young runaway on her first or second night: someone inexperienced, someone vulnerable. I’d read about men who wandered around the stations and backstreets at night, hunting down such girls. If they could do it, I could…Even if she wasn’t a willing partner, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, or what her true purpose was, she would be comfortable and well looked after, for a time at least. Most importantly, she would be engaged in something worthwhile…”

This would likely be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish, intolerant of the sexually perverse and/or uncomfortable reading about harm inflicted on women, children and animals, you should go ahead and turn back now. This one is full of that.

There is no mistaking that the prose is both elegant and intellectual throughout, no matter your feelings about the protagonist. This novel was unmistakably Gothic, with all of the subtle touches and fine-hair-raising moments requisite to earn such a title. From crop circles to human dissections, you can find an alternate world within these pages, one that will stretch the breadth of what you’re comfortable with and is altogether unlike anything else you’ve ever read. The Dumb House earned itself a solid 4 stars ****

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

It’s funny how novels are often published in waves—we’ll see a flood of multi-cultural books, an influx of war novels or a deluge of high-school-centric reads at once, proving for those who don’t believe it already that books come in trends much like shoes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth instantly reminded me Everything I Never Told You (which I loved and rated highly) and of another new-release competitor and recent review, Everything You Want Me to Be see my review of it here, which will be published around the same time by a different publisher. But I’ll resist squaring them off in a boxing-like match and stick to Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel.

If The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had anything going for it, it was bite. Set outside of San Francisco, it was a setting that was like every chicly suburban town we’ve ever heard of—a town that reeks of wealth and privilege, kale smoothies and European SUVs. It is a place where teenagers wreck their BMWs and are utterly confused at the idea of poverty in Rwanda. In that way, Lindsey Lee Johnson used this setting as a springboard to explore the culture of privileged teens today, but also as the occasional trigger for insightful nuggets.

The format is a unique crossroad between short story collection and full-length novel, where Johnson takes turns telling the kids’ stories in 3rd person vignettes meant to give us glimpses inside their minds. Each vignette-type chapter tells part of one larger story, of which they are all a part of, and is then tempered by a chapter from the POV of Molly Nicholls, the 23-year-old 1st-year teacher who has the self-altering experience of teaching them all in English. This device can, of course, be great for offering us depth and insight, but here proved to be bad for readers who want to intimately know each character.

Why, you may ask?

Because you only get each student’s perspective for one chapter, never to hear from their voice or see their outlook again (hence the earlier comparison to a short story collection). At first I thought the novel would follow just the teacher into this dangerous habitat, or perhaps even the first student spotlighted in this book. That we’d follow them and settle into seeing and learning the world around them through their eyes. But the multi-vignette approach turned the tables on my expectations—not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet, I ended up torn on my opinion to this narrative tool: I loved being inside of all of their heads, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt (some more so than others), but the page count would’ve been better expanded so that the reader could really get to know each of the students better, because without that, it just read as a tease.

Likewise, the page count of this novel also proved to me something else: that too much of a good thing can, indeed, be bad. In that regard, I’m talking about Johnson’s narrative prose.

Don’t get me wrong: the descriptive prose of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel is lovely. But there is so much of it within this relatively small page count of 260 pages that the novel feels consumed by it, and the action feels slow-coming after the first few chapters, so much so that I found myself skimming past long descriptions of bus rides and in-home décor to get to the good stuff. Truly, the endless pages of descriptive prose would’ve been better placed in a longer book, in a book that had the room for such descriptions. But with only this many pages in which to get this story across—more than enough room to do it well; we’ve all seen it done before—it was allowed to take over and edge out insight and layer peeling, leaving me feeling that something was missing.

And then, of course, there’s that resonating feeling that all readers long to be left with. For some of us, it’s “feels,” for others “insight.” In reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, it always seemed that Johnson was on the verge of something great, brushing up against really thoughtful writing set against a sharp and intuitive peep into this teenage realm. She was almost there, but it never quite made it. Long chapters stretch out before you only to end with no kick, no umph or truly thoughtful nugget to hold on to. In the end, each chapter was just that, viewing the world through a high-schooler’s eyes (albeit, entertaining ones) with enough of a changed personality to be detectable, just the smallest dab of irony as to be discernible, but not a lot more than that.

Lindsey Lee Johnson offered up a sharp glimpse at this lifestyle, this culture, but then failed to really do much with it after that. With the short page count coupled with the fact that there was no zeroing in on any particular character—instead, a kaleidoscope of vignettes with brief connections and overlays with one another like criss-crossing tree branches in a breeze—I never really felt for any of these characters the way that I’d hoped. Maybe, with the better chapters, I felt that I understood them, if not knew them, because I’d just read a 30-40 page spread about them. But because I’d never see them again this intimately for the rest of the novel, I found that I didn’t really care about them or feel invested in their outcomes as I could have. The plot this author offered was a 10, yet the execution fell short of expectations, leaving The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an above-average read, that didn’t quite push far enough to gain 4 stars. 3.5 stars. ***