Jesse Bullington’s new novel The Folly of the World lives up to its title, presenting life and death as mysteries incomprehensible to a foolish, clueless humanity. It is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's medieval fable The Seventh Seal (1957), of Monty Python's forays into history and myth, of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), which Bullington acknowledges as providing both the title of the novel (which was the original title of the painting) and the proverbs that precede each each of its sections. What all of these works have in common is a mordant sense of humor, a middle-finger firmly set against the pulse of history, and a recognition that all humans can do is flail against the incomprehensible darkness of the universe/god's silence. Art, of course, be it Bruegel's painting or Bullington's writing, is the beautiful result of that flailing. By fulfilling the obligations of art to stir the soul and quicken the heart, to make one aware of one's humanity, these artworks provide an implicit, ironic comfort against the nihilistic gloaming of human awareness, despite their gleefully profane preoccupation with death and foolishness.
In Folly, Bullington's third novel after the well-received The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (2009) and The Enterprise of Death (2011), he brings Holland after the St. Elizabeth Flood of 1421 to muddy, gloriously unpleasant life. There is a touch of devilry in his resurrection, attaching ominous hints of the supernatural to an otherwise realistic, convincing portrait of the medieval setting and its spiritual and sociopolitical contexts. The trinity of protagonists are well-suited to explore this historically accurate post-apocalyptic landscape. Handsome, sociopathic charmer Jan and violent asphyxiation-fetishist Sander are a pair of con-men who take a "half-feral," poor dyer's daughter, Jolanda, under their uncomfortable wing. This union is born not out of altruism, but because they need an excellent swimmer (which Jolanda is, having grown up by the sea). She is to retrieve an essential piece of their next con from a house in the drowned purgatory into which the countryside has been transformed by the flood.
What unfolds is a highly involving, sometimes overwrought quest story that tries a little too hard to shock and disgust in its first half. But that quest narrative eventually evolves into something different, dipping a few toes into politics and religion (primarily the civil war between the "Hooks" and "Cods," who supported, respectively, the Countess Jacqueline or her uncle John III as rulers of Holland) before veering into a gripping, haunting final act. Throughout its course, it remains unpredictable, eschewing most of the tropes of fantasy epics, historical or otherwise. It has elements of the picaresque, lurching through various scenarios while its roguish protagonists skirt the edges of a dubious law. It also takes elements from murder mysteries, Gothic novels, folkloric narratives, sociopolitical and religious satire, weird horror, and conspiracy tales. Bullington's prose is deliberately purple, and sagging with so much simile and metaphor that their weight sometimes threatens to snap his sentences asunder. Whether this bothers you is up to taste, and secondary to the more interesting discussions raised by this novel.
Interestingly, while Jan, Sander, and Jolanda form a deeply flawed, broken trio, they also, despite bearing all the fallibility of the human race on their shoulders, resonate as somehow mythic. Each of them, at certain points in the novel, is described in supernatural terms. When we first meet Jan, he leaves a village after causing someone's death, leading its inhabitants to conclude that "the devil himself had come to Ansmeer" (p. 22). Jolanda is seen at one point "floating along the edge of the water, a vengeful ghost" (p. 480), and Sander starts the story as the archetypal Hanged Man as well as the Fool, boldly escaping death on the gallows to rebound into an unexpected new existence. And yet, when we share the viewpoint of these characters (Bullington sticks close to his characters in limited third-person, often jumping points of view), we see their frightened confusion, their indelible humanity. If these are mythic archetypes, they're discernible as such only in a cosmic puzzle invisible to any but gods and devils—or the writer and the readers.
The allegory that the novel recalls most is, fittingly, a medieval one; the Dance of Death, which Bruegel took inspiration from in his painting The Triumph of Death (1562), and which Bergman referenced in The Seventh Seal. The Dance of Death portrays people from all walks of life being led on a dance by personified Death. It symbolizes the inescapable inevitability of death and the futility of reveling in material life, as all, no matter how wealthy and powerful or poor and powerless, are united once their time is up. Bullington plays off this notion in the way his three central characters constantly transform and wear different identities, shifting from archetype to archetype to cheat their low-born fates. They're always playing a long con, whether or not they want to, and in doing so they become different people as they move along the narrative. Jolanda starts as a dyer's daughter, becomes "a moppet" by the side of Jan, and then goes on to become not just a woman but one in several shifting positions of power (and lack thereof). All three characters also appear at times to escape death and become symbolically resurrected, each glimpsing in some way the unfathomable mystery that lies beyond life and running from it.
But no matter how much the characters attempt to cheat those that mean them harm and gain power and wealth, it always turns out that they're dancing to death's tune, "damned spirits, ignorant of their fates and condemned to play out some ghoulish tragedy" (p. 415). It's Jan who says this to his companions, only to counter with "I'm fucking with you! . . . Calm down before you give yourself a fit!" (p. 416). This sums up Bullington's position too, playfully fucking with our propensity to ponder the unthinkable. He gives us plenty to think about, plenty to ponder in a harrowing story filled with violence and cruelty that borders on nihilism, only to remind us that there's joy in laughing in the face of darkness.
That Jan and Sander are gay, Jolanda a woman (a teenager when she is found), and Sander explicitly portrayed as suffering from mental illness, makes the novel a case study in the treatment of the under-represented (and poorly represented) in genre fiction. Bullington seems well aware of this, not treating his characters’ sexuality as indicative of their villainy (indeed, almost everyone in the novel treats everyone else terribly, including Jolanda). Jan and Sander's sexuality proves more important in how it affects and complicates their relationship with Jolanda, and vice versa.
I feared at first for Bullington's portrayal of Jolanda, as her debasement as a young, poor woman in the Middle Ages began to take on tiring shades of grimdark excess, with every man calling her every manner of misogynist insult on sight. But Jolanda's suffering, the fact that she seems fated to life as an insignificant street urchin and "slut" (no matter that she is a virgin, and thus embodies two archetypes at the same time)—a fate to which all those who stand above her in the hierarchy of class, sex, and power try to affirm by branding her with words—is an important prelude to her reversal of fortunes. She grows into a remarkable character, far from idealized, and yet movingly resilient and adaptable. When Jolanda grows and takes on different roles of power, including in her relation to Sander and Jan, that power isn't fetishized. It instead provides her with a genuine humanity that is sometimes lacking earlier in the novel, when she's all spit and fury. As Sander recognizes at a crucial moment, "she wasn't a bitch, a slut, an idiot, a whore, she was Jo" (p. 168).
While that last line might have read like a pointless platitude in a lesser novel, it rings true because Bullington makes Jolanda and Sander's relationship, which starts off predictably foul (they both share a powerful romantic attraction to the dangerously puckish Jan), grow into a bond that's strange and touching. It works because Sander's mental illness leaves him branded in a similar way to Jolanda, carrying the stigmatized burden of "the madman" (the Fool, and all it entails), touched with visions and "waking dreams." The exploration of Sander's point of view keeps from becoming exploitative even while others in the novel exploit or are repulsed and terrified by his illness, which brings on hallucinations and paranoid delusions. Bullington doesn't spring the almost-always execrable old twist of "it was all in his head," nor does he use Sander's hallucinations to justify the fantasy elements in the novel in the ways one might expect. Instead, Sander's suffering is shown as just that. He's a man struggling against his own history, uncertain of anything, and clinging only to the two things he can count on—the carnal promises of violence and sexual pleasure (often together). When Jolanda comes along, he takes a risk and starts, with great reluctance, to count on friendship as well. He has Jan, of course, but their relationship is volatile and violently sexual, rather than mutually protective in the way Sander and Jolanda's becomes.
So I come to the conclusion that this brutishly violent, dark novel is ultimately about love, which shines brightest in the bunghole between the mysterious binary of life and death. Like the squire Jöns in The Seventh Seal who, looking upon Death, tells his master the knight to cast aside "anxiety over the eternal" and "feel in this final minute the triumph of rolling your eyes and wiggling your toes," I see Bullington as subtly assuring us that our time in these mortal shells is of worth, that caring about other souls in their infinitely kill-able shells is godly enough. Don't take my word for it, though. This is a novel that doesn't seek to answer questions or give solid conclusions, reveling in ambiguity. Much like Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs, it's interpretive; it illustrates the human condition vividly without excessive commentary, presenting people doing unspeakable things, foolish things, hilarious and terrible things to keep one step ahead of death's scythe (because, really, that's all we're ever doing). But unlike Bruegel's masterpiece, Bullington's novel makes us care about some of those people, and gives them a modicum of wit to try and retain their dignity before that scythe takes them, weighed as it is with our own petty hatreds and eternal folly.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines including Asimov's, Apex Magazine, and Redstone Science Fiction. He has written reviews for Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).