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The Kingdom of Ohio cover

In Ian McDonald's 2004 novel River of Gods, a principal character, Thomas Lull, considers his adoption of India over his native country, the United States. He characterises it as a choice between alternative modes of transport. "How Thomas Lull knows he is un-American: he hates cars but loves trains, Indian trains, big trains like a nation on the move. [ . . . ] Western thought rebels against this. Western thought is car thought. Freedom of movement. Self-direction. Individual choice and expression and sex on the back seat. The great car society." (p. 200) American life, for Lull, is jealous and hermetic, a sanitised bubble of forward momentum. It is emphatically not the grimy, social, unreliable stuttering of the train.

Even the most cursory of glances at the American past, however, would reveal that it has not always been so. From the myth of the First Transcontinental Railroad, complete a few short years after the end of the Civil War and ever since a symbol of American unity, to the train in Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues", conversely a symbol of the inmate's isolation, the train has been a potent, if changeable, American motif, a founding image of the nation and its journey into modernity.

Two recent novels which nestle next to the sleepers of several genres have both used the early American train in something close to this way. In Robert Jackson Bennett's new novel, Mr Shivers, the Depression-era Midwest is conjured as a post-apocalyptic landscape of ominous portent: "The sun turned a deep, sick red as it sank toward the earth. Even the sky had a faint tinge of red. It made a strange, hellish sight. It was the drought, everyone said." (p. 4) That these sentences could be taken from a novel set in a ruined future as much as an impoverished past is a fact which Bennett plays with, and it is some chapters until he finally allows the reader some certainty that it is the 1930s Dustbowl migrations they are reading about, and not some awful near- or far-future Armageddon. His novel is a gentle horror, its indebtedness to Stephen King works such as The Stand (1978) worn fairly clearly on the sleeve; but its deliberately mythic treatment of its chosen historical period provides it, too, with something of the character of a fable.

The first thing we see moving across this landscape is a train, which has "built up a wild head of steam" (p. 1) and is unknowingly carrying hobos—the novel's main characters—from Tennessee into Missouri. Throughout the story, this gang of itinerants hop on and off trains illegally, risking the wrath of the guards—many of whom, of course, are either corrupt or lazy—and bailing out at their next stop. Bennett's principal focus is on Connelly, a driven but taciturn man who has left a wife behind at home following the brutal murder of his daughter. Each of his companions, too, has lost someone close to them, in each case to a shadowy man in a black coat and with a torn mouth, rumours of whom fill the benighted gaps between the trains' stations.

If all this sounds a little hoary, it undoubtedly is. In the first chapter alone, Bennett gives us the aforementioned train, the laconic hero, "faces as beaten as the land" and "a country boy's awe" (p. 2); we get men slapping dust from their clothes, mouthfuls of yellowed teeth, old country roads, people red with kicked-up clay, and Jesus. The first paragraph of the second chapter gives us a small town of at most five hundred people with "a main street, a post office, a general store, and finally a saloon at the end of the street." (p. 7) I am not the first reviewer, either, to detect strong echoes of the short-lived HBO series Carnivale (2003-2005): Bennett's pseudomythic, ominously magical, dirtied Depression could at times be a direct lift from the imagery and atmosphere of Daniel Knauf's flawed masterpiece. Bennett is unashamedly derivative, drawing from a hundred similar images of a shared vision of the American past.

The man who has taken the life of Connelly's daughter, and many others before hers, is discussed in hushed tones in every huddled, displaced settlement the hobos happen upon. "They talk about him like he's not real," observes Connelly at one point. "Like he's a myth. Or the devil." (p. 27) Later, as the travelling avengers become more and more battered in their chase after this figure, they begin to resemble "medieval, wandering partisans wearing some diseased warpaint." (p. 141) In Bennett's spare, unshowy prose, legend and history, one period and another, come to sit side by side under the unifying aesthetic of the myth. The train, meanwhile, passes through all of them, carrying its passengers from one vignette to the next—it literally travels through this American story, making it even possible.

The story itself is dark stuff, examining the (masculine) impulses which provoke violence and revenge. In this it covers similar ground to The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), the first novel in Patrick Ness's young adult Chaos Walking trilogy, asking when it is permissible for a man to go so far in self-defense or the wreaking of justice as to take another's life. In comparing Mr Shivers to a novel intended for much younger readers, I deliberately imply that its treatment of this theme may not always be of the deepest sort. When Lottie, the book's only major female character, leaves Connelly's band, it is because she does not have the stomach for what he perceives must be done: "I don't want to kill a man," she explains. "I don't ever want to have that on me." (p. 171) Later, when Connelly, who has ignored Lottie's entreaties to join her in more peaceful pursuits, comes face to face with the monster he seeks, he is told, "We are alike in some fashion which I find difficult to perceive." (p. 219) When Connelly protests, angrily, that he does not kill little girls, Mr Shivers simply replies, "No. You do not. Not yet." Seventy pages later, to continue his quest of vengeance without hindrance, Connelly kills a little girl.

The Ask and the Answer (2009), the second book of Chaos Walking, includes as its epigram Nietzsche's famous lines on the abyss looking back. This is excellent in a book which seeks to introduce readers to such thorny moral dilemmas; Mr Shivers, on the other hand, surely aims at a readership already familiar with the basic concepts involved. It's a shame it doesn't seek to do more with its mythic backdrop than diligently work such well-tilled rows.

Bennett's is also a book about change. "A whole country has been unsettled,' one character observes of the 1930s (p. 30); and the novel ends by asking us if we hear its portents (the distant whistle of a train?) ourselves. So as well as the usual entertainments of a straight-forward horror, Mr Shivers contains in its fable an interesting theory of divergence, about the way in which one period of history moves into another. I wasn't as convinced as Bennett that the Great Depression was such a period—it seems to me more part of a story than the beginning of one.

A more likely candidate for an epochal shift are the years, a few decades earlier in the twentieth century, chosen by Matthew Flaming as the setting for his Flaming's novel, like Bennett's, plays with genre expectations; it is considerably more intellectually sophisticated than Mr Shivers but perhaps lacks the narrative pleasures of the latter's well-turned yarn. It features time travel, early industry, and, neatly, trains.

Flaming's trains are those of the New York subway system, upon which construction has just begun as the novel's main narrative begins. This story is narrated by an antiques dealer in contemporary New York who quickly proves a thoroughly unreliable interlocutor. As we return again and again to his frame narrative, we discover further fragments of information which greatly influence our sense of who he is and why he is telling his story—indeed, what his story is actually about. One of Flaming's great successes is in this slow reveal, which is expertly and never once frustratingly done.

The story proper, however, begins with Peter Force, an itinerant worker who finds a job working in the dangerous undergrounds of New York City, digging the holes through which these latest trains of modernity will pass. Crucially, whereas in Mr Shivers the train offers a sort of freedom, carrying its passengers far further than they might go on foot, the increasingly technophobic narrator of The Kingdom of Ohio—a nostalgic soul who struggles to articulate all that he feels the too-fast modern age has lost—sees the train quite differently. He speaks of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, that symbol of unity and the power of American endeavour, scornfully: "I can't help but see this event as a nail in the coffin of the Free Estate." (p. 79) In Flaming, the compression of distance effected by the train simply reduces the space in which it is possible to be a free agent. The Kingdom of Ohio is about the loss of these spaces, and about the contradictions inherent in that which replaced them.

Peter soon meets a young woman named Cheri-Anne Toledo—seemingly, and certainly never explicitly by anything other than, coincidence. Cheri-Anne is a missing scion of the Royal House of Ohio, a forgotten dynasty of farmer-kings who claimed a part of that state for their own in the pre-colonial era, ruling it until Peter's own recent past, when the forces of corporatism, increasingly powerful and embodied in the novel by the figure of JP Morgan (one of Flaming's headiest creations), took the land by force. Flaming's narrator spends a large amount of his frame narrative—and indeed chunks of the story proper—footnoting the existence of this American Ruritania, proving by spurious academic inference that it truly existed. Isn't all history fiction of a sort? One such footnote imagines in beautiful, evocative prose—indeed, in one of the finest passages of the whole novel—the fall of the Kingdom of Ohio. It is total imagination on the part of the narrator, thoroughly unsupported by any of his sources. But imagination is what gives the kingdom life—and, indeed, what gives its inhabitants and adherents the same. "I can't help but think," ponders the narrator, "that that all this stuff about facts (in the footnote sense) is overrated anyway. I wasn't a scholar growing up, but I remember learning that Christopher Columbus was a hero, and that the Civil War was about slavery. Now I'm told that Columbus was a "hegemonic exploiter" and that Mr Lincoln's War was fought primarily for economic reasons." (p. 29)

But let's get back to the trains. Cheri-Anne has been thrown forward several years from the fall of the Kingdom of Ohio to the turn of the American century, by a machine invented—but no longer remembered—by Nikola Tesla, the great rival of JP Morgan's man, Thomas Edison. What becomes clear is that this temporal travel is anchored at Peter Force's point in time by a great mystery at the heart of the putative New York subway system. The trains run over—they mask—a truer core. Morgan is at the centre of a corporatising web which is using inventions such as the subway system to make the world more uniform, more controlled: "ever since damned Edison raised the possibility of time travel, the spectre has haunted his nightmares. The vision of a world turned upside down, the orderly march of history and progress scattered to the wind, undermining the roots of everything he has struggled to accomplish." (p. 163) The core tension at the heart of the new industrialised, technocratic, corporatised age is that innovation can set people free, but that Morgan, with some defense, believes that too much freedom is a bad thing. (Cheri-Anne, too, has a terrible vision of "whole cities unmaking themselves as the past is rewritten" [p. 202].)

Peter wonders at one point, "How to find a place for the inexplicable in the world [ . . . ] to make room for what defies all common sense?" (p. 266) Finding room in an increasingly—inevitably—controlled world is the enquiry at the heart of The Kingdom of Ohio—in a modern world forged by controllers like Morgan and his toys, where can the marginalia be scrawled? In his rococo redrawing of history, Flaming most reminds of Glen David Gold, whose Carter Beats The Devil (2001) similarly played with personages real and fictive. But he also has something in him of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, all genre-play and post-modern wryness, and even Christopher Priest—Tesla as magician, science as both more and less than we hold it to be. His novel is hugely rewarding on the levels of cleverness and philosophy. It is also, alas, a little cold: its prose, perhaps deliberately, perhaps a function of its increasingly disassociated narrator, is distant and distancing, and curiously the principal characters—Peter and Cheri-Anne—especially fail to excite. (Morgan, Edison and Tesla, on the other hand, are fascinating—and irreverent—pen portraits.) This feels an uncharitable niggle, however: what the novel lacks in narrative punch it more than makes up for in food for thought.

"That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore, that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks! Where is the country's champion, the Moore of Moore Hall, to meet him at the Deep Cut and thrust an avenging lance between the ribs of the bloated pest?" In 1854's Walden, Henry David Thoreau was no fan of the train, which tore up the landscape he so loved. But the America we know would have been impossible without it. Thomas Lull, in an India of the 2050s beginning to eclipse the USA, might define the train as anti-American; speculating instead about the dawn of American dominance, Bennett and Flaming more correctly identify that vengeful, implacable, freeing and fixed iron horse as a central image of a weird American century.

Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.



Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
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