Every once in a while you read a book that defies convention, a book that frustrates and intrigues all at once. Bricks is one of those books. At once stylistically challenging and conceptually dense, Jenner's short philosophical and historical re-imagining of the fall of the Celts and the rise of the Roman Empire is a unique literary adventure. Historicists may find the book compelling for Jenner's attempts to root his story in actual historical accounts of the druids—largely related to us by the Romans. Fantasists, however, may be drawn in by the narrator.
The narrator of Bricks—called the bricklayer by Jenner, though "the Druid" is a preferable title due to the narrator's affiliation with that culture—is not your typical hero. In many respects, he is not a hero at all; rather, he is a mystical god-like being who has seen the changes wrought by time (specifically, the impact of the Roman Empire on human culture) and been unable or unwilling to alter its course. Jenner develops this perspective through alienation, reminding the reader—through the Druid—that we are not of the same species: "My thoughts were created by the same forces that created and fired the clay" (p. 2) and "We, however, are not born in the way you would expect. I am just a normal human being, I wasn't born until I had been here for over thirty years" (p. 11).
The strategy of alienation works, at least insofar as Jenner's narrative functions in as chaotic and cerebral a manner as its main character. The Druid spends much of the first half of the novel explaining his existence and why we, as humans, have fallen away from the natural order of things:
The world now is dominated by science and by its methods. These methods seek the truth, but by their rigidity and narrowness of mind they steer away from the truth. The ego of science is fearful of deeper understanding and by its very nature will not find the progress is seeks. (p. 6)
The Druid's anti-science attitude stems from an old-world mythology about the Celts and their druidic practices: that they were more attuned to nature than we are now. Bricks is full of such descriptions; the Druid frequently reminds the reader that humans cannot see the lines of the universe and that we are distant from the higher order functions which he is attuned to.
But the novel draws the reader to question the reality presented by the Druid; we cannot be sure of the truth of the Druid's words precisely because very little is known about the people he claims to have lived among (the druids and their followers). And as the story moves through the Druid's attempts at recalling memories over a thousand years distant, it draws attention to the weakness of historical accuracy and to the perceived failures (at least, in the Druid's eyes) of a culture of historical supremacy—that is the idea that he who wins the war writes the history.
Within this context, Bricks is both an amusing and difficult book that demands rereading. Jenner uses multiple narrative forms, including historical narratives, poetry, and straightforward fiction, to relay his story—a jarring choice, both because these forms require different reading processes and because the transitions are often abrupt. All combine together to produce a book whose purpose, embedded under several narrative layers, seems firstly, to criticize Western culture, sometimes in quite obvious ways, such as through direct address; and secondly, to reflect upon the systems of historical remembrance by imagining a new history through a fictional and timeless inhuman figure.
Bricks, as such, is heavy-handed in its approach, liberally inserting doses of didacticism which sometimes verge on the pretentious. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience through the evocative "you," usually to remind them that he is not human and that our language cannot adequately describe the concepts he has come to understand through his long life: "Unfortunately I cannot describe it to you. Your minds are such now that it would be like explaining light to a blind man" (p. 12). Likewise, shifts from fiction to poetry are unexpected, just as shifts from philosophical wanderings to the Druid's historical accounts are unexpected. But rather than see these moments as "pretentious" or "didactic," it is perhaps more compelling to think of them within the context of the narrator. If we take the Druid seriously as a deity (of some description), then we also have to take him seriously when he tells us that some things cannot be put into a language we can understand.
It is therefore easy to read Jenner into the Druid, thereby suggesting a hint of laziness on the part of the author; but the reality is that the Druid is simply condescending, treating the reader, who he acknowledges as not of the same species, as inferior. The Druid's perspective is consistent on that point. He acknowledges both his genetic and cultural superiority in order to keep up the façade (if it is a façade—I don't think it is). This strategy also strengthens the degree to which his historical remembrance can be taken as factual, at least insofar as Jenner's fictional narrative can be taken as "real." True, Bricks is as much a fiction as anything else, but the fact that its narrator is drastically inhuman means there are different kinds of narrative barriers to suspension of disbelief.
I don't want to suggest that everyday readers cannot understand this book; rather, I am only suggesting that approaching Bricks as though it is like any other plot-driven narrative is to set up an expectation that the novel, insofar as it can have intentions, has no desire to fulfill. I enjoy plot-driven stories as much as anyone else, but reading Bricks forced me to change the way I read in order to discover different kinds of details. Bricks is an "experience," if you will.
I also don't want to suggest that Jenner's strategies are entirely effective. Jenner is successful to a point, but Bricks is also a flawed production: it is at times pretentious and didactic. While the text is odd and fascinating, it also suffers from excessiveness. Jenner frequently gets lost in the narrative style of the Druid, penning paragraphs that are so packed full of information or syntactically dense/complicated that whatever is being relayed gets lost or muddled. Additionally, the narrative's lack of plot leads it to jump back and forth between historical account and philosophical wandering, jarring the reader with long-winded philosophical mumblings—often ones which criticize contemporary culture. The problem with these mumblings is that they are often overbearing (i.e., in your face):
Emotion is the only true medium of communication. That is all you need to know, and it is not to be mistaken for the hopelessly crude interpretation of emotion that is taught to you by the men (usually) with letters after their names. Remember, we detest and loathe institutions and the people who make them are a stain on reality, the kind of stain that causes wars and ignorance and mass murder. At their most benign they are responsible for paralyzing depression and for creating the voids you feel inside. They are a tool of the others. (p. 41)
Such paragraphs occur frequent during the 105 pages of story proper (the appendix adds another 30 pages). Simply put, as much as Jenner's approach to the Druid's narrative is compelling, the written format draws too much attention to itself. This is made even more obvious by the fact that Jenner's descriptions of the Roman conquest of the druids are often lyrical and appropriately paced, whereas the first half of the book is spent reminding the reader about our failure to "see" reality as we should.
But once you do get to the Roman sections—in the proper sense, since Julius Caesar is evoked numerous times throughout the text without becoming a staple of the narrative—Bricks becomes a fascinating read. The Druid's reimagining of Caesar's rise to power and his desire to conquer the British Isles are well-paced and stylistically sound. Sadly, Jenner doesn't give us Caesar's narrative until the last forty pages of the book proper, after which we are provided with an appendix that tries to cobble together the various historical narratives of Plutarch, Pytheas, Diodorus, and Caesar himself to give some sense of the historical importance of this period and the truthfulness of the Druid's story. Both the Druid's account of Caesar and the appendices are Bricks's strengths, but they also draw attention to the very problems I mentioned before, which dominate the first half of the novel.
While I don't see any of the above as a problem for readers who prefer complexity and abstractions (a la Pynchon and other postmodern writers), those who are looking for a straightforward alternate history or fantasy may be put off. To those readers, I'd say give the book a fair shake, even if Jenner's style sometimes plays the didactic in an attempt to make a point or suggest, through the Druid, the faults of Western culture.
Yet despite all of Bricks's faults—from the pacing to the didacticism to the novel's written style—it is still a book worth reading. And, perhaps, rereading.
Shaun Duke is a science fiction and fantasy writer and a graduate student at the University of Florida, where he is trying to avoid losing his mind while working on his thesis (and failing miserably). His fiction has appeared in Residential Aliens and he is the co-owner of Young Writers Online. He can be found telling someone else's life story on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag.