There are few phrases that can shut down a critical conversation faster than Your Mileage May Vary. It is, of course, an undeniable truth that all artistic judgements ultimately boil down to personal taste, but the purpose of a review is to quantify and illuminate that reaction in order to shed light on the work being discussed, provide an indication to prospective readers of how it might sit with them, and—which to my mind is its most significant function—to provide grabbing-on points for those who wish to argue with the reviewer's points and conclusions. To say simply, "this is my opinion and others might disagree," is the equivalent of taking your ball and going home. Nevertheless, after several days of arguing with myself over Jesse Bullington's debut novel The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart—days during which I veered wildly between denouncing the novel as one of the worst it has been my misfortune to read, and admiring enough of its parts to feel certain that I had to be missing something crucial about the whole—I'm forced to follow in the footsteps of many of the positive and even effusive reviews that The Brothers Grossbart has received, and hedge my criticism of the novel as those reviewers hedged their praise. Some people are going to love this book; others will hate it; they will have roughly the same reasons—the novel's protagonists and its erratic, almost schizophrenic, shifting between different tones—for their differing reactions.
The brothers Grossbart are Manfried and Hegel, German peasants in the 14th century who make their living from grave-robbing and dream of following their grandfather to Egypt where graves full of treasure are, after all, plentiful. At the beginning of the novel, they return to the village of their youth to take revenge on a local farmer who had thrashed them for stealing his crops. When the man's wife tries to stop them, the brothers stab her to death with her own ax, bash the couple's eldest daughter's brains in, set fire to the house with the two youngest daughters still inside, and slit the son's throat before his trussed-up father's eyes. Stealing the farmer's cart (and pausing only to massacre the posse sent to retrieve them) they make their way into the surrounding mountains, and stop for the night for a rest and a theological discussion.
The stars shone and the wind blew, the brothers Grossbart enrapt in their discussion of Mary and her ponce of a son. Hegel could not fathom how such a wonderful maiden had borne such a pusillanimous boy.
"Seems simple," Manfried theorized. "After all, Ma was shit as shit can be, yet we's immaculate."
"True words," Hegel nodded. "But it's natural for fine crops to spring from mecky earth, so we's not so much a anomaly as a rare, decent woman birthin heel stead of hero."
"He took his lumps, though. Didn't squeal none."
"So what? Not puttin up a fuss when you's getting stuck up on a cross don't seem honest to me. He could a kicked one a them, at the very goddamn least." (pp. 26-7)
Now, there are various methods an author will employ if they wish to make their protagonist a thoroughly immoral and unpleasant person, and Bullington gestures at and then avoids each and every one of them so nearly that one can only assume he has done so deliberately. One approach, for example, is to sugarcoat the protagonist's wicked deeds, or distance them from the reader through humor or by making their victims unpleasant people themselves; but in Bullington's novel, our very first introduction to the brothers involves a blow by blow description of the murder of innocents (by no means the last time they will commit such an act), including such details as the farmer watching his wife "kick and piss herself, the rain slowing to a drizzle as she bled out in the muck" (p. 4). As for humor, the above quote is representative—most of the humor in the novel is drawn from the brothers' conviction that they are immaculate emissaries of Mary's will, their actions completely justifiable as self-defense, which rather undermines the humorous tone's capacity to diminish the horror of their actions.
Another approach is to make the character tormented or contrite, or have the focus of the narrative be their growth into these feelings, but, again, the brothers consider themselves to be righteous men, and though there are several instances over the course of the novel in which one senses some glimmer of remorse in one of the brothers, the other immediately comes along to quash it with a reminder of their heavenly, sinless state. Alternatively, the novel could be a grim, nihilistic tale of evil triumphant and unrepentant, but though there are moments of grim nihilism in The Brothers Grossbart, most of them occur away from the title characters, who consistently lighten the tone of the novel with the aforementioned humor and put morality at its center with a staunch, albeit demented, insistence on doing what's right in Mary's eyes. Finally, the story could revolve around the character getting their comeuppance, but instead The Brothers Grossbart is structured like a picaresque adventure, with the very progress of the novel dependent on the brothers vanquishing each of the various menaces—witches, demons, highwaymen, sea-monsters, madmen, and several troops of armed men—they encounter on their way to Egypt, so that a reader hoping to see these villains punished is instead forced to root for them if they wish for the novel to have a satisfying shape rather than simply stop.
Bullington plays with the reader's expectations and sympathies masterfully, never allowing us to either give up and root for the Grossbarts or gain the satisfaction of their downfall. To read about the brothers is to be in a constant state of tension between disgust and admiration, between the desire to see them come to a much-deserved sticky end and the natural affinity one feels for the protagonist of a story. A reader who manages to sync up with Bullington's shifts in perspective on the brothers, to simultaneously root for the brothers to triumph over the many challenges they encounter and anticipate their punishment, will no doubt enjoy the novel immensely. For someone like myself, who never found that sweet spot, the Grossbarts made the novel that bears their name one of the most viscerally unpleasant reading experiences I've had in some time.
It's possible that I would have found The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart slightly less frustrating if there weren't moments in which its knowing, game-playing tone drops away and the narrative clicks suddenly into focus, aiming for nothing but pure emotion. Hegel and Manfried are not the novel's only emotional locus, and the others—the heretic priest Martyn, who tracks a demon who spreads the Black Death; Captain Barousse, an Italian obsessed with a mysterious woman who also captures Manfried's heart; Rodrigo, the captain's ward who seethes with frustration when the brothers take his place as the captain's favorite; Nicolette, a witch whom the brothers encounter in the woods; and Heinrich, the farmer whose family the brothers kill at the beginning of the novel—are related in a vastly different emotional register than those portions of the novel revolving around the Grossbarts. Gone is the dark humor of their reflexive self-justification and lightning-quick resort to violence. In its place is something affecting—the story of Martyn's doomed love for a village girl who succumbed to the plague demon, or Barousse's mingled love and loathing for the object of his obsession. Heinrich becomes incensed with his fellow villagers' refusal to risk more lives pursuing the Grossbarts, and then more so by the realization that, should they gain absolution from a priest, the Grossbarts might see heaven before his wife and children, who died without confessing their sins. He takes off after the brothers, in his desperation selling his soul several times over. Even in grips of total evil, however, there is pathos to Heinrich's character.
"Let us be demons, then!" Heinrich screamed. "Let us be then pestilence upon those that would abide such cruelties as this! Let us riot and rampage upon the servants on the devil in the sky who deceives the whole world into His worship! Vengeance is our name and deed! Vengeance for every murdered child, for every raped woman, for every soul who toils only to see all they have loved and wrought wither and sicken, suffer and die! No absolution! No confession! No last rites! Grossbarts, we come for you!" (p. 315)
Overwrought as it is, there is more recognizable humanity in this speech than in most of the Grossbarts' scenes (and it carries the novel's theme of heresy and questioning religious dogma much farther than the Grossbarts' Mary-worship, which is alas where that theme is concentrated throughout most of the novel), and the two plot strands thus sit very uneasily beside one another. Heinrich is a character who, in any other novel that sought to make the Grossbarts its heroes, wouldn't exist past the murder of his family, the better for the readers to forget the brothers' crimes and ignore the anguish they've left behind them, but whether or not Bullington intended for his presence to be yet another means of undermining his own placement of the Grossbarts at the novel's center, the contrast between Heinrich and the brothers threatens to tear the novel apart. It seems impossible for such characters—the one so recognizably human even when he becomes a monster, the others so cartoonishly exaggerated even in their most human moments—to exist in the same literary landscape, and the constant shifts in tone that accompany the narrative's leaving or returning to the brothers' side are just as wrongfooting as its ambivalent attitude towards the brother themselves.
Sometimes it seems that the Grossbarts are comedy characters in a horror novel. At times this is a grotesque, body-parts-and-bodily-fluids kind of horror, as when Barousse's paramour transforms into a monster and is killed by the brothers ("Their weapons tore through the webbing between her fingers, smashing her hands down into her face and chest. Her blood proved red, thankfully, but they kept screaming, mashing her skull and driving her ribs out through her back." [p. 336]) and at other times a novel of pure existential dread, as when a contingent of knights Hospitallers who have, through a combination of coincidence, misunderstanding, and outright lies, taken the brothers for messengers of God and chosen to accompany them finally recognize their true nature and turn back. Our relief at the seeming good fortune of the knights for having escaped the Grossbarts, who have by this point killed, maimed, or been the underlying cause of the killing or maiming of most of their companions, is short-lived.
Just out of sight of their former company, they were cheered to discover the bog yielded to lush farmland and bountiful orchards. They rested in the shade of an enormous tree and gorged themselves on dates, unaware that a salamander had nested in the roots and infected every fruit with its dread toxins. They all began convulsing and sweating blood, and only after their organs burst from the heat did their suffering end. (p. 388)
The Brothers Grossbart repeatedly reaches for both the comedic and horrific response—two modes which defuse one another. Humor works by desensitizing the reader, making us laugh at events that, if told with a straight face, would horrify or sadden us. Horror works by making the reader hyper-sensitized, so that even seemingly mundane objects or events take on a sinister and affecting significance. There are a lot of works that combine elements of comedy and horror, but without fail they prioritize one over the other—horror comedies that make gags rather than chills out of their death scenes; comedies that try to make us squirm with sympathetic mortification rather than laugh out loud. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart reaches for both of these reactions equally. One moment we're grimacing at a particularly gruesome bit of description or a brutal act, and the next we're laughing (or, in my case, recognizing the laugh cue and passing it by) but not without registering the change in tone, the fact that what a moment ago was meant to be taken seriously is now a gag. Piled on top of the Grossbarts' frustrating refusal to settle into the heroic or villainous mode, this shifting of tones is frustrating and, ultimately, alienating, all the more so for being quite obviously deliberate.
Comedy and horror are modes that reach, perhaps more than any others, for affect. They don't simply try to engage the reader's emotions, but actively seek to manipulate and overpower them, to elicit an emotional response from us whether we wish for it or not. It's not surprising, therefore, that a novel that is so steeped in these two modes should boil down to Your Mileage May Vary. What scares us, what makes us laugh, are such personal reactions that the reviewer is left with nowhere to stand. Where The Brothers Grossbart fails for me, however, is not in failing to be funny or scary (though it is better at being scary than funny, and better at being disgusting than scary) but in the fact that its constant shifting between the two modes comes to seem like an assault on the reader—just as we think we've found a way to deal with Bullington's manipulation of our emotion, he comes at us from another direction and overpowers us again. Even in the midst of a deeply negative reaction to this assault, it can't be denied that Bullington's ability to navigate these sudden shifts in tone is impressive, and that with The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart he has proven himself to be an extremely talented writer, who has written an unusual, even remarkable, debut in which he showcases a prodigious talent for manipulating his readers' emotional responses. I say this, however, in much the same way that Doctor Who will on occasion express admiration for the villain of the week's master plan—it's very clever, but why would you want to overrun the universe with your hordes of killer robots? Just because one can do a thing doesn't mean one should, and I'm at a loss to imagine what, beyond a sort of shock therapy for his readers, Bullington's purpose was in so deliberately courting their discomfort. That so many other readers have responded positively to this roller-coaster ride clearly indicates that others see the point in the exercise even if I don't (though on its most prosaic level I hope this review will encourage prospective readers to give the novel a thorough test drive before committing their time and money to it). For myself, I will be watching Bullington's future career with interest and not a little bit of trepidation, hoping that with his next novel, he'll use his powers for good.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.