Near the end of Julia Holmes's debut novel Meeks, in a passage written in the first-person narrative of the delusional eponymous character, comes the exclamation "Look how energetic and hopeful these lifeforms are!" The scene is a public hanging that is about to follow the already-performed mass marriage ("happiness engineered to function on a massive scale" (p. 145)) that occurs ritually every September. Meeks believes he is about to play the role of Founder Captain Meeks in the pageant that will culminate in a hanging. Throughout the book, Meeks's perceptions are idiotic and naïve, covering over an underlying anger and despair. Characters in the book enjoy laughing at him, as when Bedge, the Chief of Police, jams a police helmet so small onto Meeks's head that he can't get it off afterwards. But this homeless misfit speaks in syntactically complex, complete, florid sentences, and his voice is poetic: "I thought of how I loved the healthy green give of the grassy slopes, the sound of the breeze through the grass growing uniformly on the surface of the earth, the warmth emanating from it, the perfect scent of things just broken open. I love this world as I loved my very mother" (p. 18).
Every voice in the book is the same voice, such that first-person narrative is exactly like third-person, and even occasional bits of colloquial dialogue are written in that elaborately literary voice. That voice is florid, old-fashioned, and flat—and superficially objective even when the words it speaks barely conceal its anger. The narrative attributes to Meeks casual knowledge of things he can never have seen or experienced. The incongruence of that voice with Meeks's character especially bedeviled my reading, making me feel throughout that the author was unwilling to grant the characters independent status that makes them real to the reader's imagination.
A work of fiction is a collaborative project. The author's part in the collaboration is finished when the book is printed, but the collaboration itself occurs in the reader's head, the result of the interaction between the text on the page and the reader's imagination. In his 1968 essay "About 5,750 Words," Samuel R. Delany atomizes a small but critical part of the collaborative process that even the most overwritten work demands of the reader, and in doing so demonstrates why style cannot be neatly separated from "content." "A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times," he writes (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, revised edition, p. 5). Delany takes the trouble to atomize the process precisely because the many tiny incremental "corrections" made in the reader's imagination are a process that the reader almost never notices while reading, except for the occasional instance in which the text offers a piece of information about characters or events that Changes Everything. Consciousness of the collaborative process is usually not desirable (unless, of course, the work is a postmodernist metafiction designed to make the reader aware of just how strange it is to read or write fiction).
Anent the collaborative process, one of the precepts teachers impart to beginning writers is that the story (or novel) must teach its readers how to read it. Writers do this by way of the formal structures they use to shape the narrative as well as through narrative style and tone. In most cases, readers will know by the bottom of the opening page of a novel what kind of story they’re reading, even if they have no idea about where it is going or even whether it will be painful, feel-good, or boring.
I struggled mightily to achieve a successful collaboration with Julia Holmes's text. That struggle made me conscious of the collaborative process. How should I be reading this to make it work? I kept asking myself. My struggle began with the first heading in the book: "The Brother's Tale, Part 1 (September Prologue)." It flooded me with uncertainty. Formally speaking, a prologue is self-contained. How, then, could this "September Prologue" also be designated "Part 1" of an apparent series? I was stopped soon again, however, after finishing the "September Prologue" and arriving at the first page of the opening of the novel. "May," the heading declared. The issue of whether "The Brother's Tale, Part 1" is or is not a prologue suddenly became pressing. If the "September Prologue" is a prologue and therefore set-up for the novel, is it meant to be an event in the narrative’s future—something the narrative is heading toward—or is it a piece of (incomplete) back-story? But that was a question I couldn't answer, and thus a "correction" I had to leave for later.
Leaving questions "for later" became a necessary habit, for many of the details of the narrative raised questions I couldn't answer. Other sorts of details introduced questions with no obvious answers. For instance, the narrative went out of its way not to confer any female character with a name. Women's names, however, occur in two places: on the padlocked doors of the Sheds (a sinister place where women are sent into solitary confinement when they refuse to marry or when some unnamed person or institution decides they're superfluous), and as the name of a gun. Do women acquire names only after they've been discarded? Or is this lack of naming a choice of the author, meant to pound home the lack of female subjectivity in this fictional world? Though near the end of the book I discovered that at least some of the questions (for instance, those about the "September Prologue") were puzzle pieces I was meant to assemble when I’d accumulated enough of them, the narrative left many questions unanswered (including those about whether women actually do lack names).
The main body of the book alternates between a third-person narrative focused on a young man named Ben and the first-person narrative of Meeks—except, of course, when these narrative flows are formally interrupted by "A [sic] Brother's Tale," parts 2 and 3, and "The Father's Tale, part 1," and "A [sic] Father's Tale, part 2." (The significance of changing "A" to "The" and "The" to "A," presumably part of the author's puzzle, still eludes me.) Ben is an army conscript who's just been discharged; he arrives home to discover that his mother has been removed from her house and sent to the creepy, sinister "Sheds." Ben's mother’s house and all the possessions it had held, including his deceased father’s clothing, has been "reassigned." Ben is distressed at being deprived of the house and its possessions, which he had expected would be his. He's made to wear a cheap, smelly black suit and is frequently and aggressively informed that he is grieving. But his obsessive—and only— concern is acquiring a pale suit (which he eventually steals off the body of an unconscious young man). He believes that if he acquires a pale suit he will marry, and also believes that marriage is a rite of passage that will lead to his being handed what we readers (though not anyone in the book) would call all the perks of a middle-class white male, which he believes ought to be his. Midway through the novel, we learn a little about the Sheds when Ben is riding on a train that passes them:
The train passed the oldest Sheds, fields of green huts beside the tracks. Hefty chains were snaked through the metal door handles and padlocked. That seems excessive, thought Ben, who had never actually visited the Sheds. On each shed was stenciled a name . . . Lucia, Nancy, Henrietta . . . the names flew by . . . [Ben] thought of his mother, consigned to a life of serene contemplation in one of the named but numberless rooms . . . Why hadn't he found her Shed his first day back and torn the chain from the handle and carried her out into the sunlight and cared for her the rest of her life? (Because it was forbidden.) (pp. 113-14)
Presumably "(Because it was forbidden)" is not Ben's thought, but a piece of (exculpatory) information being offered the reader 100 pages after he learns that his mother is "gone." For one hundred pages the narrative has shown us only one reaction to his mother's being taken—resentment at losing her house and possessions, and bitterness at the loss of the one person who was "the merciless protector of all that was hers and his" (p. 13).
Meeks, as mentioned above, is another matter. Meeks misunderstands most of what is happening to (and around) him. But Meeks has heart. Meeks, unlike Ben, has always been homeless. His mother, who apparently came from Outside, raised him in the Park and fed him by exchanging sex for food from a rich developer, died in the hospital, and was buried under a hillock in the Park. Meeks, unlike Ben, takes an innocent pleasure in the world. He even claims to enjoy being beaten up because it makes him feel less lonely.
Ben and Meeks have a number of things in common, though. Like some of the other young men in the story, both are parent-less, only children who were raised by their mothers, both are young men trying to find their place in the world, both are feckless and lacking in social skills, both feel deprived of their rightful inheritance, and both have oppressive mentors who are neither honest with them nor looking out for their best interests.
Their stories intersect only tangentially. The tailor (Ben's false mentor) installs Ben in Bachelor House 902. Ben spends about half of the book obsessing over his need for a pale suit and glowering enviously at other bachelors and young married men. About halfway through the book he shoots another bachelor's gun at a tree outside Bachelor House 902 and feels elation at seeing the birds and squirrels that had been in it fleeing in terror. He then steals a pale suit off the body of an unconscious man, goes to a party where a woman he has no feelings (sexual or otherwise) for feeds him cookies, has a fantasy about how nice it would be to live in a house with her and have children who would admire him, gets shot by a rival, has his suit ruined, and ends up in the crew of a forced-labor gang. In the book's other main story, Meeks believes he's a cop patrolling the park he lives in; while Ben is obsessed with a pale suit, Meeks is obsessed with acquiring a gun (presumably for convincing the youths in the park who abuse him that he is indeed a cop). Meeks eventually takes a gun off a man he mistakes for dead (the same unconscious man from whom Ben stole the pale suit), is deluded into thinking he will play the part of the "heroic" Captain Meeks in the Independence Day pageant, and is on the verge of being hanged at the climax of the pageant when the book ends.
Meeks combines a lush profusion of discrete details with a maddening scarcity of the kind of detail that would give my imagination something to work with. There is no "there" in Meeks. Its setting is a cross between a toy town and the Village in the original Prisoner series. It's impossible to imagine how the City could even have a working train when it has completely isolated itself from the world Outside (a circumstance that calls into question Meeks's belief that his mother came from Outside), no source of fuel to run it (or the trucks that are mentioned) or the raw materials or equipment to build and maintain it. In other words, the train exists solely as an instrument of the narrative, and not as a node in the network of details that make up a world. Shoes are made by cobblers, clothing by tailors, and there’s nary a telephone in the book, but the police department has thousands of different forms that can be filled out, officers carry two-way radios, there are trucks and factories and electricity. Meeks's false mentor Bedge says to Meeks, "We’re waiting for a new shipment of guns" (p. 33). But from where? Although cakes and cookies and mints and fabrics and automobiles, "spiked fruit from far away" and "green-tinged bananas, as if tinged with smoke" (p. 148) exist as discrete units that serve the narrative as needed, they fail to function as nodes in the network of details that readers need for envisioning the world the narrative depicts.
In Delany's atomization, every word—or "correction"—helps build the world of the fiction in the reader's mind. But in this book, the accumulation of words—or "corrections"—seemed to produce in my mind not a world but a set of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Does the lack of world-building matter? Not in every case and not for every reader. The basic requirement of fiction is an ability to sustain the engagement of the reader's imagination. I suspect that readers lacking experience with the protocols of science fiction will find Meeks a more satisfying read than those accustomed to reading science fiction. In the face of florid description, they might not even notice the leftover puzzle pieces that don't fit neatly into the shape the other puzzle pieces make.
My final conscious "correction" to my reading came on p. 161. A member of Ben's work gang, referred to only as "the hammerer," is a compulsive storyteller and professional actor; not though he only appears on a dozen pages, he is arguably the most fleshed-out character in the book, and when he is not telling stories, his speech is colloquial. The hammerer has an inexhaustible fund of stories and enjoys telling them. At one point he begins a new story, "Yes, 'tis true that I had but one chance to save myself with words, yet I did not choose wisely. Thus begins our sad tale . . .” (p. 161). At which Ben says, "Please be quiet." When pages later, Ben asks the rest of the gang if they want to hear a funny story, the hammerer retorts, "You wouldn't listen to me. You told me to be quiet." Interestingly, in his ongoing altercation with Ben, the lines Holmes gives the hammerer are the most passionate in the book. But the story fragments continue to flow, if not from the hammerer, then from other members of the gang, and Ben's resistance to them and the hammerer's anger at Ben’s resistance to them continues for several more pages.
The hammerer is the key: the hammerer is the storyteller who is addicted to holding forth to an audience, willing and unwilling. Ben despises his stories because they aren't the stories everyone already knows and are accustomed to "remembering" when they're retold. They come, as the hammerer says, "from his brain" (p. 161). I have not been able to shake the feeling that the author, here, is declaring herself. The hammerer may be dressed in an ugly gray uniform and treated like a prisoner or a slave, but he is brimming with vitality and refuses to feel like a prisoner. Handed a plank he needs to nail to a framework, he holds it "close to his face" and inhales deeply, savoring the smell of the wood. Ben grabs him by the collar when he returns from a stroll, hysterical at the thought that he might be held responsible for the hammerer’s absence. The hammerer replies, "You need to relax. You understand they've already got us, right? That it couldn’t get any worse?" The hammerer, here, is echoing Finton, the bachelor who paints, who earlier assured Ben that there's nothing worse than being a bachelor. Stories, for the hammerer, are an escape (as Finton's paintings are for him). He doesn't like stories that take him "down some private memory lane, letting you bring us down." He likes stories written with the details and in the language of the many fragmented stories Holmes delivers in her novel through her characters' mouths. He likes the story told by the "heavens watcher," in which "A heavy, freezing rain rolled over the island; the black waves bloated with green air crashed and sizzled against the rocks. The swells rolled ahead: all the great moments of history were passing him by" (p. 160). Ben sneers: "The black clouds, the black pebbles, the black leaves . . . We get it" (p. 162). The "heavens watcher" remarks he had said nothing about trees and a few pages later, at the end of the story, the hammerer comments "God, you're an amateur . . . You should keep your thoughts to yourself" (p. 166). We can't help having noticed that Ben is a bitter, narcissistic loser. And the story's images remind him (and the novel’s readers) of one of Finton's paintings. But because the story makes him uneasy, he openly despises the novel's language and is put into the wrong not only by refusing to appreciate his fellow laborers' aesthetic sophistication, but also by not listening carefully enough to get his criticism right. The sin of being a poor critic and the worst of audiences is linked to the sin of lifelessness and despair: as though we're to understand there's a moral connection between beautifully told stories that aren’t about someone's "private memory lane"—stories that are not depressing, that is—and hope, vitality, and regard for others.
Did the narrative, by its end, teach me how to read it? Perhaps. On the penultimate page of the book I realized that it was a puzzle designed to be solved on the last page. But although I never managed to find any space in the text for engaging imaginatively with the novel, when I finished reading it I did fantasize a situation in which I achieved a successful collaboration. In the fantasy, I was seated in a small black-box theater. The book's characters were actors on the stage, speaking in front of a flat of the butcher's shop, before a flat of the shelves of white cakes behind glass, in a small, squalid room in Bachelor House 902, speaking the words of the narrative, their movements as mechanical as the social behavior they so wearily pursue (except for Meeks and the hammerer, of course). In such an enactment of the book, Meeks, not the hammerer, would be the true star of the assemblage—Meeks and perhaps Meeks's mother. The flatness would then be expressive rather than frustrating, and sitting in the audience, I would see three-dimensional bodies, fleshy and particular, and hear the book's text distinctively spoken through the grain of the actors' voices and the rhythm of their breaths. I might possibly feel, then, that the stories in Meeks are stories speaking to me about the world I live in.
Meeks is not a play, though. It is a cleverly contrived jigsaw puzzle providing a showcase for the author's prose. It's absurdist rather than fantastic, angry rather than hopeful. My final thought is that I wish I knew whether the women of its world actually possess names before they are put away.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.