Nick Mamatas's work is often so relevant and timely as to border on the prophetic, and his fourth solo novel is no exception. It may also be his most accessible book to date, which is all the more impressive when you consider its non-linear, unique structure, and the Gus Van Sant-sized elephant in the classroom—Bullettime centers around a miserable teenager shooting up his high school. In theory. This is Mamatas, after all, so while the school shooting element is inevitably what will garner the work much of its attention, the novel is much, much more than a fictional account of yet another quintessentially American modern tragedy.
The novel is narrated by David Holbrook, who was a teen in New Jersey with a distant father and alcoholic mother, and who self-medicated his familial neglect and violent bullying at school with copious amounts of over-the-counter cough syrup. These are the constants we readers are given about our narrator, but everything else, including whether or not Dave actually pulls the trigger on the uzis he eventually brings to school, vary depending on the reality we are following. Bullettime is by no means the first novel to be told across multiple parallel realities, but it's the first I've encountered where we have the vantage point of a nigh-omniscient version of the main character providing commentary on the various paths his life took. This isn't a gimmick that gets sprung on the reader midway though, thankfully, but is the fundamental framework—and debatably the central thesis—of the text, as is clear from the very first lines:
This is not a story about how to do what I did and survive, and be free. I'm not free. In many of the millions of futures that tumbled forth, that are still rolling and twisting ahead out to the ends of the world since that day, I'm not even alive. She is though, at the end of every strand of fate, tugging on the fabric of life and laughing. (p. 7)
The she in question, we soon find out, is Eris, Goddess of Discord, who assumes the role of a transfer student named Erin at Dave's school. As you might expect from a deity devoted to sowing discord, she is the catalyst for Dave's (presumably) singular reality sundering into an infinite number of possibilities. While we have asides here and there to sundry parallel lives, Mamatas wisely keeps the focus tight on only a few of the many iterations of David Holbrook, with the narration (mostly) coming from a single Dave who exists beyond space and time in a place called "the Ylem," able to witness all the many possible outcomes of his life.
The moment when the original Dave becomes multiple Daves and Davids comes not when he brings the guns that Erin/Eris gives him to school, as one might expect, but earlier, when the goddess gives the oblivious boy the choice of "form(ing) a secret society" with her. She tells him:
The initiation is simple. I will entirely remake your personality to better serve the needs of the collective, and through a lifetime of praxis you shall achieve theosis, or knowledge of God. (p. 54)
Dave naively accepts, at which point what we can call his narrative consciousness, for lack of a better term, is exiled to the Ylem, the formless realm from which he watches all his possible lives play out, commenting on them and even invisibly visiting himself, in an attempt to influence his alternate realities by implanting suggestions in young Dave's clueless, Robitussin-addled mind.
Even after this juncture in the streams of reality, only our Ylem-bound Dave narrator understands that Erin is actually Eris, while all of the many teenage Daves think that she is just a cute new girl at his school who seems equally interested in flirting as she does in teasing him. Given that when his parents pay attention to him it’s even worse than when they ignore him, and given how brutally he's bullied at school, the lonely, desperate Dave’s immediate preoccupation with the mysterious Erin is as understandable as it is inevitable.
What really works about this conceit is that rather than Erin/Eris's mysteriousness arising from her being an embodiment of a Hellenic goddess, it's because she is a decidedly human, teenaged character, with all the flightiness that goes along with being an adolescent. The fact that she is a member of the opposite sex to whom maladjusted Dave is attracted doesn't help in demystifying her for the boy, especially when she gives him both clumsy sexual attention and two firearms, with the not-so-subtle suggestion that he use the guns to put a stop to the bullying. His cough syrup abuse and the abject circumstances of his home life provide little escape from the brutalizing he faces at school, and so while Dave may not be the most likeable character, his decision to take Erin up on her offer carries a certain inevitability to it, even if the goddess's motivations are never really known (she is Eris, after all, and I would count it as a weakness if the book even tried to plumb those particular depths):
I used to use [cough syrup] a lot. It changes your perception. I understood things other people couldn’t. I knew that the goddess of discord, Eris herself, was a student at Hamilton, and she was attempting to manipulate events to create a bloodbath. Why New Jersey? Why the twenty-first century? Let's just say there was always a bloodbath going on somewhere, and it's hardly beyond the ability of a goddess to be in more than one place at a time. (p. 93)
As mentioned above, while Mamatas jumps around willy-nilly in time and from one possible universe to another, the focus is primarily on three distinct realities (though each of these distinct realities gets its own asides, naturally). In one of these, Dave brought the guns to school but never pulled the trigger, leading to a stint in juvie but little else in the way of repercussions. The narrator elides the remainder of this Dave's adolescence and picks up with him as a lottery-machine repairman who still lives with his drunk, emotionally abusive mother.
The humdrum worthlessness of this Dave is contrasted with the second major iteration of Dave, one where he shot a bunch of people, surrendered to the police, and has become a Manson-like celebrity from his jail cell. This Dave, a self-styled "Kallis Episkopos," seems to be more aware than any of the other Daves of the role Eris played in his life, and actually takes over for the Ylem-imprisoned narrator, though it's somewhat unclear how he came by this awareness. Rather than a harmless, milquetoast nothing-master, this Dave has embraced the role of brutal killer and hierophant of Discordia.
Finally, we have the third Dave, one who may actually escape the web of infinite possibilities Eris has laid out, and in turn allow the narrative consciousness of Dave to escape the Ylem. If this happens, Dave will no longer be a slave to the whims of a capricious deity with infinite time and realities at her disposal, controlling Dave by controlling all the possibilities instead of guiding him toward one. The theme of escape plays heavily with all the Daves, for what is his shooting meant to accomplish other than an escape from his life? Yet in the end Mamatas manages to shift the responsibility back onto the individual, rather than a third party.
For a novel brimming with talk of Eris and Discordianism, parallel universes, sex, violence, dark humor, substance abuse, and even the number twenty-three, Bullettime really doesn’t bear much comparison to its most obvious literary relation, the work of Robert Anton Wilson. Mamatas is more interested in engaging with his subjects than using them as plot points, and better at negotiating issues of race and gender than Wilson was, especially considering said elements are filtered through a juvenile mind. There is a similar playfulness, perhaps, and I imagine fans of the one will find a lot to like about the other, but as always, Mamatas is doing his own thing here, and engagement with his predecessors is seemingly of less interest than an engagement with the present (although an "Araby" reference or two never hurt). Most of all, though, Mamatas again seems to be squinting at what may come next—predicting the unpredictable, navigating likely futures from an infinite number of possibilities. It’s a neat trick.
Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death, and the recently released The Folly of the World. His short fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he can be found online at www.jessebullington.com, as well as similarly disreputable locales.
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