book reviews

Review: Blood on the Tracks

In this brilliant debut, Barbara Nickless introduces us to marine-turned-railroad cop Sydney Parnell. Haunted by her time in Iraq (literally, as she routinely sees the ghosts of fallen comrades), she absorbs scotch like vitamin water, steals smokes from lazy cops and pops Dexedrine just to stay balanced.

Oh, and she kills a bunch of skinheads along the way.

Yeah, I love this character.

Sleep is about the only thing Sydney doesn’t do in this relentless thriller, and I haven’t even mentioned her loyal sidekick, Clyde, a Belgian Malinois who has a love of cheeseburgers, his own kevlar vest and, like Sydney, crippling PTSD from the war.

At the outset of Blood on the Tracks, a charity worker is murdered and hideously butchered. All evidence suggests that her fiance, a marine disfigured by an IED in Iraq, is the killer, but Sydney isn’t convinced. While the Denver PD considers the case closed, Sydney and Clyde continue to search for answers, even though it may expose war crimes that would ruin all of their lives — and might get Sydney killed.

What follows is a Nietzschean descent into the abyss of war and its aftermath. And as the body count begins to pile up around her, Sydney has no choice but to commit herself fully to the truth, even though that works against her self-interest.

What I also like about Sydney is that she isn’t the type who will only kill in self-defense. War has taught her that, once committed, it’s kill or be killed. When she and Clyde enter the skinhead compound, the orders are to take no prisoners, leave no survivors.

This is a very satisfying book to read in 2021. When Blood on the Tracks was first published, in 2016, hate crimes were on the rise in America. They reached a 16-year high in 2020, followed by a literal siege on the democratic process in early 2021.

Justice has taken a beating the past five years, so yeah, it’s very cathartic when Sydney bashes in a skinhead’s face with a rock.

Nickless incorporates all the great ingredients of a thriller — the flawed hero, antagonistic relationships, and numerous plot twists. My only critique of Blood on the Tracks is that there is one twist too many — an unexpected turn that feels superfluous, but more importantly, is difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel.

However, Nickless lays a deep foundation with long-term story arcs that has me excited for whatever comes next.

I also love that Sydney is not a superstar detective or a prized forensics specialist, as we so often encounter in mystery series. She is a misfit who feels right at home with the outsiders who populate the hobo camps. This makes her essential to the story. To channel my old MFA lingo, it’s the story that only Sydney Parnell could tell, which is what draws the reader into her world.

At least it did for me. I’m looking forward to reading further installments of Sydney and Clyde’s adventures.

Review: My Dark Vanessa

When you find yourself audibly yelling at the characters in a book like you’re watching a horror movie, you know you’re reading something special. My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel from Kate Elizabeth Russell, enrages, amuses, perplexes and ultimately batters the reader into despair.

In this challenging and transgressive masterpiece, Vanessa Wye narrates two timelines of her life: one beginning in 2000, when she goes away to boarding school at age 15 and becomes the target of her English teacher’s advances, and 2017, when said teacher, Jacob Strane, is being investigated for sexually assaulting a different student.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the twisting plot and unsettling behavior, what stands out to me is Russell’s handling of the two voices. It’s challenging enough to believably capture the voice of a teenage character, but to also balance that with a more mature voice that is consistent with that of the child is remarkable.

That Russell pulls it off in her debut novel is astounding.

Practically every page has a line that cut into me on some emotional level, whether it was an insight into the pressures young women face; pervasive pop culture that glamorizes statutory rape; the cruel and humiliating treatment dealt to victims of sexual violence; or a personal reckoning with my own youthful behavior.

The latter is why I feel the #MeToo movement has been such a wake-up call to many men. It brought home not only the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, but also introduced many of us to the broader scope of what it is.

It’s alarming to think of how common the behaviors at the lower end of the sexual violence spectrum were in the 1980s and ’90s — and how many of them, such as leering and catcalling, were expected of young boys as part of our development.

That underlines the importance of My Dark Vanessa. It’s tough to read for both the subject matter and for the way it forces the reader to truly consider how they would react in this situation. It also provides a long-overdue response to Lolita.

Of course, Nabokov’s controversial novel is unavoidable when discussing a book like this, and Russell takes it head on. She writes in the afterward: “I imagined the novel I wished I could have discovered alongside Lolita at fourteen, how it might have felt then to read a book that told her story rather than his.”

Like Russell, I have a complicated relationship with Lolita. It’s one of my favorite novels, but at the same time it is criminally misunderstood. The trope of a “Lolita” as a girl who is sexually aggressive toward older men is a sick distortion.

It speaks volumes about our culture that a novel about raping and kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl has been twisted into a cultural archetype to mean an insatiable teenager who seduces middle-aged men against their will.

That’s exactly why My Dark Vanessa is such an important book.

Even if, like me, you read transgressive fiction quite often, this book will haunt you — not for its salacious content, but for how insidious the sexual violence pervades every interaction in the book. Russell is not aggressive in her return serve of the male gaze. She simply holds a mirror up to it — and what she reflects back is something ugly, something that demands reckoning, that refuses to be ignored.

With Lolita, it is easy to distance oneself from the villain. In My Dark Vanessa, there is no such mercy. No doubt, this is one of the most disturbing and important books I’ve ever read.

Review: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic takes on racism, misogyny and New Imperialism with Gothic symbolism in this highly acclaimed novel.

Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada is a young socialite with diverse and ever-changing interests — anthropology being her most recent obsession. Her traditional family, however, would rather she pursue a husband than a graduate degree.

But when a distressed letter arrives from her newlywed cousin, Catalina, Noemí strikes a deal with her father — he will grant her permission to enroll in graduate school if she serves as the family´s ambassador. While her father fears the shame of a well-publicized divorce (or that Catalina´s mysterious new husband is after the family’s fortune), Noemí is concerned for her cousin´s life. So she travels to the rural mountain village where Catalina lives at her husband’s family estate.

Enter the ominous castle — High Place.

The Doyle family are English expats who had once amassed a fortune in a Mexican silver mine, but whose exploitation of local labor and environmental resources eventually led to financial ruin. The mansion is now crumbling and overrun with mold and fungi. There is spotty electricity, little access to the outside world and seemingly no way to escape.

Extricating Catalina is not as easy as planned. Noemí has no legal recourse to take Catalina away from her husband, even if she fears her life is in danger. With only the help of a few villagers and an unlikely ally within the family, Noemí must take on both the Doyles and an ancient presence that lives within High Place.

For fans of the genre, such as me, the beloved tropes of the remote castle, dead brides, haunted legends and dream visions make for a delightful read on their own.

But Moreno-Garcia understands that the brilliance of Gothic horror lies not merely in the trappings, but in what they represent.

Probably the most obvious symbolism is the dying patriarch of the Doyle family, representing social destabilization and the end of the colonial era. But the paterfamilia has concocted a way to achieve immortality, even if it makes all of them prisoners of High Place.

It would be a horrible, oppressive fate, to waste away in a dilapidated mansion built on a crumbling ideology.

Noemí is the breath of fresh air that just might blow the whole thing down.

Fun read with social commentary and ancient curses. Well worth your time.

Review: The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky

The Broken  Earth Trilogy

N.K. Jemisin

“Just because something is horrible does not make it any less true,” the narrator of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy tells us in the closing pages of her epic tale. This would appear to be the guiding philosophy for the series, which takes an unflinching look at social injustice, environmental destruction and a global economy built on, and reliant upon, exploitation.

Dealing with reality is the only option for Jemisin’s characters, because survivors of a climate apocalypse don’t have the luxury of alternative facts.

Having reviewed the first novel in the series, The Fifth Season, I was going to discuss the second and third installments (The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) separately, but I was so immersed in this world that I finished Sky before I could even begin to write about Gate.

To briefly summarize, the Broken Earth trilogy follows Essun, a mother with special talents who wants to improve a broken world for her young daughter. She lives in a future where Earth has become a barren, inhospitable planet prone to sudden tectonic cataclysms and unpredictable seasons.

When we first meet Essun, her husband has murdered their infant son and kidnapped their daughter, Nassun. This sends Essun on a quest to rescue her only living child. Both Essun and Nassun are “orogenes” — a race of people who can manipulate the earth’s energy to magical effect, such as quelling or generating earthquakes, or creating protective energy shields.

Orogenes are both feared by the majority (known as “stills”) and necessary to the survival of the community. Therefore, orogenes usually live only as long as they are useful, but as Jemisin writes in Gate, “being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.”

This results in brutal treatment and ostracization. Being an orogene in the wrong neighborhood can be fatal, and those with little talent are often killed in their youth. Orogenes with advanced skills are sent to special schools akin to the church-run American Indian boarding schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This injustice is best encapsulated in the following passage:

“They’re afraid because we exist. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing — so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.”

Jemisin’s writing is moving, inspirational and tackles social issues without being didactic. She is also honest. There is no happy ending tacked on in the final pages. There is no ultimate justice.

There is no way to completely fix a broken world, even if Essun can successfully end the catastrophic “seasons.”

But beyond the social commentary is a thrilling tale of perseverance, adventure and familial bonds. The scenery is vivid and well-crafted, and the magical system is revealed with minimal exposition. I found the community-building aspects more engaging than the battle sequences, but there are no weaknesses to Jemisin’s game — evidenced by the fact that each installment in the series won the Hugo Award for Best Novel from 2016-2018.

The Broken Earth trilogy is an engrossing epic, but it is also a scathing indictment of humanity’s pathological reliance on exploitation in order to prosper. Fittingly, these novels emerged at a time of rising nationalism and white supremacist activity. Jemisin offers a concise description of the fear fueling these movements:

“There are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors… Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.”

We have seen the deadly consequences of this in recent years. The Broken Earth trilogy may not prescribe a sure-fire remedy to this struggle, but it is a piercing battle call to keep up the fight.

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents

Octavia E. Butler

This book broke my heart a dozen different ways, many of which were unexpected. I anticipated the gloominess of social and racial injustice and the ugliness of weaponized patriotism.

But in this prophetic 1998 novel, that presaged 2015-2020 America by nearly two decades (in which a demagogue becomes president, campaigning on the slogan, “Make America Great Again”), the gut-punches come from unexpected directions.

There is the heartbreak of destroyed families, both physically (the murder and enslavement of non-Christian and minority communities) and personally (the ideological divide that has pushed loved ones to opposite extremes of the culture war).

There is the heartbreak of those who have been rescued from slavery and trafficking turning against the ones who saved them.

But I think what I find most heartbreaking is the cognitive dissonance that pervades society. In perhaps the most prescient aspect of the novel, when the atrocities committed by the Church of Christian America are exposed, the church’s followers deny the enslavement, rape and execution of the “heathens” within the church’s network of “reeducation camps.”

It is eerily reminiscent of the way revisionists are already trying to distort the facts of the January 6 insurrection, despite an absurd amount of video evidence provided by the perpetrators themselves. It befits a country where the only defense that 40 percent of the population can muster is to shout “fake news” over and over like pull-string talking dolls.

This was honestly one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, and I am a connoisseur of the disturbing. Butler does not shy away from the depressing truth of human nature. She doesn’t try to tack on a happy ending or hint at a brighter future.

She presents humans as they are, not how she’d like them to be. This is a book for truth-seekers, not escapists. Nietzsche rather than Pascal.

The reality is that victory lies not in winning, but in persevering. Victory is speaking the truth when the truth has become criminal, no matter the costs.

If there is any misguided optimism in Parable of the Talents, it is the notion that we can colonize other planets for the betterment of humanity. The protagonist, Olamina, has devised a peaceful philosophy called Earthseed that she hopes to expand to other planets — despite the fact that we can’t even stop destroying our current one.

Though in Butler’s defense, that is a lot more obvious now than it was in the mid-’90s, which was a time of great optimism.

Like the members of Butler’s Church of Christian America, humans will believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence. A beautiful lie will always be more welcome than an ugly truth.

No matter the atrocities committed in their name, having pride in a country’s mythology is always easier than building a country worth being proud of.

Review: The End of Alice

The End of Alice

A.M. Homes

I only recently stumbled upon this excellent novel, but better late than never. I wasn’t familiar with the content, but recognized A.M. Homes from writing the introduction to my copy of Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist.

Anyone qualified for that task knows a thing or two about transgressive literature, and Homes does not disappoint. With The End of Alice, she has written a classic that demands space between Connell’s infamous novel and Lolita.

Like Lolita, we have a tale of pedophilia recounted by a perpetrator (Chappy) who reflects on his crimes from within the criminal justice system. Like Diary, the transgressions are symbolic of American culture and its sins of genocide, racism and slavery. In Connell’s novel, the narrator is a fragile white male, fearful of the changing landscape of 1960s America — and whose crime ostensibly takes place on July 4. In Alice, when the narrator meets the titular 12-year-old girl, she is dressed up as an American Indian.

Each of these novels is told by an unreliable narrator, through court testimony, diary or — in The End of Alice — prison letters. Presenting the POV of the “monster” is what makes them so controversial, but more importantly, so effective. The reader is left on their own to discern what is reality and what is fantasy — and it is a very uncomfortable place to occupy given the subject matter.

The End of Alice adds an interesting wrinkle to the narrative. Alice is off-screen for most of the novel. The main plotline is the correspondence between Chappy and an unnamed 19-year-old female admirer. Through their letters, she reveals that she wants to seduce a 12-year-old boy, and Chappy becomes something like a mentor, giving notes and encouraging her conquest.

Meanwhile, Chappy has a parole hearing coming up. Despite serving a life sentence, he is confident he will be released and even likens the hearing to an appearance on What’s My Line? (an old game show, for younger readers).

When he sits before the parole board, however, his illusions crumble. Throughout the book Chappy has described Alice as the aggressor. While he attempted to quell his desires, she pursued him, sneaking into his cabin at night.

His case file tells a different tale that is disgusting and horrifying, and the fact that he thought the parole hearing was anything more than a formality shows the extent of his mental delusions.

Having these moments of outside clarity helps increase the punch of the unreliable narrator. I liken it to the most powerful moments of Lolita, when Humbert Humbert wonders why Dolores cries herself to sleep at night.

My criticism of this novel is that it is a bit overwritten in places. Chappy’s prose rambles with alliteration and lyrical repetition to the point of distraction. It felt more like the author performing the word play than the character. At times, it reminded me of the readings in my MFA program.

But amid the excessive prose are sentences as sharp as razors. The playful language becomes the set up — to lull the reader before delivering the gut punch. And as Humbert Humbert himself said, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

This was an incredible book and is required reading for any student of transgressive media.

Review: Tender is the Flesh

Tender is the Flesh

Agustina Bazterrica

I have recently developed a preference for Impossible Burgers, a plant-based meat alternative, over ground beef. Reading Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh did not cause me to second-guess this decision.

To be clear, the novel is not simply a polemic about factory farming or a futuristic retelling of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is a deeper critique of the entire global economy, our class structure and a food supply chain designed to minimize consumer guilt.

Tender is the Flesh takes place in a future where a virus has made animal meat lethal to humans. Animals have been eradicated, and for a while, the world went vegan out of necessity.

That didn’t last long. Craving a meat fix, consumers (I use that word intentionally) turned to the only viable meat option remaining: humans. Dubbed the “Transition,” the world’s meat counters were once again stocked with product — now referred to as “special meat.”

Marcos, our protagonist, manages a meat processing plant and is highly regarded in the field. His father had operated a renowned slaughterhouse prior to the virus, but was unable to cope with the Transition. He was “a person of integrity, that is why he went crazy.”

Marcos also struggles with the Transition, but reminds himself that he does it to pay for his father’s care in a nursing home. Marcos is also dealing with the death of his child and the resulting estrangement from his wife.

He copes by detachment:

“He wishes he could anesthetize himself and live without feeling anything. Act automatically, observe, breathe, and nothing more. See everything, understand, and not talk. But the memories are there, they remain with him.”

His attempt at dissociation fails when a supplier, hoping to make nice for a botched order, gifts him with an expensive delivery — a young female “head” who is certified First Generation Pure (FGP), the most prized and costliest grade of “special meat.”

Like all “head,” her vocal chords have been severed so that she can’t complain and when it’s time to slaughter, the butcher won’t be upset by her screaming. Marcos ties her up in the barn while he decides whether he should sell her for a tidy sum, breed her or use her for food. (In a clever bit of world-building, foodies have perfected the technique of butchering “head” piecemeal so that they always have fresh meat available.)

Tender is the Flesh is broken into two parts. The first covers a very compressed timeline where we get to know Marcos, learn of his family tragedies and bear witness to the new method of meat processing. This is gut-churning stuff, even for a hardened horror lover such as myself.

But as hardcore as this first part may be, it is the second half where the book goes to a dark place even I wasn’t expecting.

Throughout part one, Marcos tries to distance himself from the horrors of reality. He’s a vegetarian who is disgusted by the business of human meat processing. He is also troubled by the reliance on euphemisms that legitimize (and dehumanize) the whole business.

In the second half, detachment is no longer an option. The gift of the FGP forces him to reckon with reality. He names her Jasmine, even though that is a crime punishable by death. He cleans her up and moves her into the house.

Once forced to action, Marcos is both a passionate idealist and a ruthless businessman. He connives to protect Jasmine, visits an abandoned zoo and prepares for his father’s death.

This culminates in a gut punch of an ending that is a reminder that being human isn’t the compliment some people want it to be.

Tender is the Flesh is an incredible book that is beautiful, well-written and dark beyond dark. It has one of the bleakest endings of any book I’ve ever read. In other words — I loved it.

And yeah, it makes the Impossible Burgers taste even better.

Review: Grotesque

Natsuo Kirino

Grotesque

This is a book that lives up to its name. Beauty and deformity drip from every page in this transgressive thriller. It put me in mind of Flannery O’Connor, not in the aspect of prose but in the weight of oppression and despair.

There is no escape hatch for either the reader or the characters. The female leads — Yuriko, the monstrous beauty; Kazue, whose determination is greater than her social awareness; and the unnamed narrator, who is Yuriko’s older sister and self-described shadow to her sister’s light — are born into a system built for them to fail. Any path they tread is treacherous.

For Yuriko and Kazue, that path is sex work, though they arrive by different means and with different motivations. Their ends, however, are similar. They are both murdered by a client.

For the narrator, the path is a “sea of hatred” — she develops an armor of malicious wit, bitterness and resignation. She comes to relish the confused reactions people have upon learning that she and Yuriko are sisters.

Grotesque is epic in scope and haunting in execution. As with O’Connor, the writing sticks to the bone and the moral philosophy weighs on the mind long after. I can’t rave enough about this book. This is the second book of Kirino’s I’ve read — the other being the amazing Out — and I look forward to reading more.

As much as I loved Out, I think I love Grotesque more. Recency bias? Maybe, but the books deviate so much from each other in style and perspective that I don’t think that’s it. Out is a page-turner, whereas Grotesque is more like a Russian novel.

The former you can’t put down. The latter crawls under your skin, just the way I like it.

Review: Kill Creek

Scott Thomas

Kill Creek

I would categorize Kill Creek as a cozy horror novel, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a book built for a windy night and a warm beverage. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a format-busting novel like House of Leaves, Horrorstor or Marabou Stork Nightmares. Other times I’m in the mood for a classic tale, well told, such as Kill Creek.

Scott Thomas plays the hits in his debut novel. He takes on classic themes and pays tribute to a long lineage of gothic/ghost stories: the writer protagonist with a troubled past; a house haunted by an historic injustice; curses that spread like a virus to destroy all infected; and a supernatural presence that preys on its victims’ emotional vulnerabilities.

Our protagonist is Sam McGarver, an author who has had some initial success but has hit a creative dead-end. He spends most of his time teaching at the local university and trying to keep his marriage from falling apart.

Out of the blue, he’s asked to participate in an online publicity stunt–a Halloween sleepover with three other horror authors in one of the most haunted houses in America. Reluctantly, Sam agrees.

Joining him are T.C. Moore, the take-no-shit weaver of extreme horror that likely would have been labeled splatterpunk three decades ago. Sebastian Cole, the elderly statesman/Stephen King type who has had decades of both commercial success and literary street cred. And Daniel Slaughter, who writes young-adult Christian horror with strong moral lessons.

The dynamic between the characters is intriguing, and I enjoyed the action when they were all together for the first time. For me, those were the strongest parts of the book. Unfortunately, their time together at the beginning is too short, and when they reconvene at the house for the final act, they don’t have the emotional bond that would’ve made me more invested in their outcomes.

There are some other shortcomings, such as the characters of Moore and Slaughter. Moore, at least, is an intriguing character, and I wanted more of her at centerstage. For the first half of the novel she’s a badass, but becomes more two-dimensional as the novel progresses. She more or less disappears in the final act, which is a shame.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Slaughter’s character. He’s likeable and pitiable when we first meet him, and his affection for his daughter is endearing. There seemed to be a lot of potential there that was left unfulfilled, and I found him to be sadly unbelievable by the end.

Overall, I found Kill Creek very fun and enjoyable, and for the first half of it, I considered it a five-star read. However, the second half really dragged due to an overlong action sequence and predictable plot points.

I was discouraged near the end, but ultimately Thomas delivers a solid ending with an unexpected turn.

Kill Creek was an incredibly fun book to read. It’s a fast and furious adventure as comfortable as a campfire tale. The nights are getting cooler, and pretty soon we’ll be in Halloween season. This is the perfect book to get you in the mood.

Review: A Short Stay in Hell

Steven L. Peck

A Short Stay in Hell

What fresh hell is this? Actually, Peck’s take on the underworld is quite fresh and not at all what I was expecting. Now, if you’d told me that hell was a library where the books were unreadable, I’d say that was some Saw-level torture porn.

But that is not what this book is about. In fact, Peck is at first able to sell this premise to the reader in such a way that it appears to be a pretty light sentence. By the time we realize how truly horrible it is, we’ve learned there are far worse things to be found in hell.

Other people.

That’s right, this book about the afterlife, written by a Mormon ecologist, deserves a place firmly on the existentialism shelf of your library. 

Let’s backtrack a moment for context. In this philosophical novella, Soren, a lifelong Mormon, dies and learns that he has chosen the wrong god and has been sent to a Zoroastrian hell. It’s not too bad at first: Meals are provided. You can still have sex. You can get drunk without hangovers. You are once again 25 and wake every morning pain free. And you live for near eternity inside a library.

However, each occupant of hell has one task, and that is to search the stacks of books until they find the one that tells their life story in full. Once that’s accomplished, this denizen of hell will be reshelved in heaven.

There are two problems:

First, this hell is based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” which concerns a library that contains not just every book that has ever been written, but also every possible book that ever could be written, including all configurations of letters, numbers and symbols.

It’s not infinite, but may as well be for practical purposes. Even worse, not only does it take eons to find the correct book, it is next to impossible to even find a readable one. (In this biblio multiverse, there necessarily exists a book consisting only of periods, another of semicolons, and every combination of the two.)

Books, books everywhere, but not a one to read.

It’s a fate worse than that of Henry Bemis, who at least could take comfort in suicide or look forward to a natural expiration date.

The second problem with this hell is that Soren is not alone, which is a mixed bag. On the wall of the library, there is a list of rules for enjoying a good afterlife. The first rule:

“Please be kind. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Failure to do this will bring unhappiness and misery to you and your fellow citizens.”

Considering how poorly humanity followed this rule on Earth, you can imagine how well this goes over in hell.

A Short Stay in Hell is a quick and easy read. I read it in less than two hours, but don’t be fooled. The final page is just the beginning of the exercise, not the end of the book. Unlike most philosophy, the reading is the easy part. It is the thought experiment that occupies your mind long after that is the challenge. I’ve struggled so much to describe this book that I’ve already referenced Dorothy Parker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Twilight Zone, existentialism in general and the Saw franchise in search of analogs.

And I’m not done. There’s some Kierkegaard coming as well. That’s a lot to pack into a 102-page book.

That said, it’s not perfect. Parts of the novella would have benefited from a deeper study (such as the rise and reign of the Direites, a violent cult that takes control of Soren’s region of the library). The quality of the prose is also inconsistent. Peck has a lot of strengths (philosophy, science, writing, theology), but urban fantasy is not one of them. His depiction of the Zoroastrian demon feels like a clumsy attempt to mimic the humor of Christopher Moore or Tom Robbins (though I was picking up some major Sean Murphy peripatetic vibes).

Otherwise, his writing is direct, easy to read and unobtrusive, but Peck’s intellect and ideas are much stronger than his prose. He has masterfully recreated an absurd scenario that would make any of the French existentialists proud:

A man finds himself inside a near-infinite library of gibberish and is tasked with finding the true story of his life (or the meaning of his existence, you might say). He wakes in a random point in the library that is of no relation to the location of the book he needs to find. He has no map. There are others who have, by chance, been born around the same time as him and happen to also occupy the same random section of the library. And in the afterlife, as in the original, the search for meaning often gets sidelined by disasters, distractions and creature comforts.

There are nine rules posted to the library walls, and they read like an existentialist creed: be kind, try not to die, everything is temporary, you can feel incredibly lonely despite never actually being alone.

Mostly, it’s the other people that make the library unpleasant. As above, so below.

So what about Kierkegaard? The library is divided by a wide chasm, with no way to cross from one side to the other (and what if the book you need is on the other side?). It’s an unbridgeable gap of unfathomable depth. An abyss, if you will. Soren (like his Danish namesake) considers leaping into it, but doesn’t do so until it becomes the only way to escape the daily torture of the Direites.

He quickly learns that in the abyss you can fall for thousands of years and still not hit the bottom, dying a million times from starvation along the way.

It’s a fate worse than Kierkegaard ever contemplated. Missing is the romance of surrender, the glorious descent and the annihilation of self. When our Soren leaps into the gap, it is an act of desperation, not salvation. And it’s a long way down.