As a critic, there is no more difficult book to review than the one you found so tedious you would not have finished reading it were it not a review assignment. The task becomes still more difficult when that book is thoughtfully written, passably original, and well-intentioned. When it makes use of the kind of metafictional devices you would normally delight in, the kind that made you request the book for review in the first place. When you know there are probably readers out there who will enjoy the book so much it will become a favourite. When your own singular lack of appetite for it comes down to something as simple and as complex as personal chemistry.
I did not get on with Trapped in the R.A.W., a fact that is all the more painful to me for having such excited expectations. Our time together could best be described as a blind date gone horribly wrong. Our worldviews failed entirely to coincide.
As its subtitle suggests, Trapped in the R.A.W. poses as a found text, a journal left behind by a young woman who happens to find herself trapped at work—she is a librarian at Jefferson University’s “Rare and Wonderful” collection—on the day of an alien invasion. Kaylee Bearovna’s journal is accompanied by interviews conducted with surviving members of her family and friendship group thirty years after the invasion. The book as a whole, we are given to believe, is one of the first new works of literature to be published in the post-invasion world, both a commemoration of those who died and a beacon of hope for the future.
The invasion happens without warning. Humanoid creatures that Kaylee dubs ‘pacz’—her inability to decide whether the invaders are people, aliens, creatures, or zombies provides her at least with a convenient acronym—move swiftly through populated areas, killing every human they encounter simply by touching them. Kaylee witnesses the genocide through the library windows, unable either to act or look away. Her attempts to shield a group of children and later a lone male survivor end in disaster. With food supplies running low, and no sign of any organised rescue attempt, Kaylee finds solace in the written word, interpolating her survivor’s account between the lines of various volumes kept in the RAW. She illustrates her entries symbolically, with images taken from a book of etchings by Walter Crane. As the months wear on, we learn details of Kaylee’s life before the invasion: her relationship with an abusive professor and the daughter he stole from her, her grief over the presumed death of her best friend Benji, the stability that books have always provided in a world where Kaylee feels, herself, to be a bit of an alien.
Throughout her time trapped in the R.A.W., Kaylee watches the pacz that patrol the grounds, observing their behaviours and idiosyncracies. She learns that the invaders fear water and as a result she is able to exit the building in search of supplies when it rains or snows. She also learns that the pacz are not all the same. One in particular, whom she names the Tall Man, appears to be defending her against the actions of other, more aggressive pacz. When eventually she decides to leave the safety of the RAW and go in search of her daughter, Kaylee tidies up the library and leaves her journal behind as a record she hopes might be of use to other survivors in the years to come. Through the fragmented narrative that makes up the second half of the book, we are able to piece together some of the details of what happens next. Can Kaylee survive, and does she find her daughter? Why did the pacz invade in the first place, and where did they come from? What will become of humanity in the aftermath of an apocalypse that has changed the world forever?
When considering a post-apocalyptic story, there are two broad directions a writer might choose to take. You could go the hard SF route, extrapolating outwards from our present moment to examine the causes of the catastrophe and the decisions that humans as a species have to make in order to survive. Or you could opt for a close-focus, psychological approach, centering the action on a smaller number of characters with limited access to information about the bigger picture. Both options have their challenges; both have equal potential to be satisfying and hard-hitting. Trapped in the R.A.W. attempts to combine the two, with the first half of the novel taking the close-focus route, the second opening out to view the catastrophe through a wider lens. The possibilities here are boundless. The problem, for this reader at least, is that neither of the book’s two halves can be counted a success.
The first part of Kaylee’s narrative deals with the invasion itself, the horror and confusion, the immediate threats to her personal safety, and the increasing sense of loss and abandonment as she realises how entirely the world she has always known has been swept away. In spite of the suffering and death that are unfolding in front of us, Kaylee’s account of her situation remains as unaffecting as it is unconvincing. Events are listed rather than described or felt, while the lack of more personal, salient details means that the horror of what is happening outside the library remains at one remove, more a catalogue of ingredients than a lived experience.
Day One. When I dream, the events of that day are what I see. Over and over. I hear screaming. I climb the ladder. I look out the window, & I see people running across the Quad, shoving each other out of the way, falling, trampling the too-still bodies of other people. Dying.
The cause? Waves & waves of some type of beings, more or less the size & shape of humans, inundating the area from all directions. Ugly things, dressed in brown, that just won’t stop. So many of them. So many & they just keep coming. (p. 21)
Invaders arrive, a lot of people die horribly, and the town is burned to the ground to ensure no survivors. The action reads like a game synopsis and has as little emotional impact. Throughout this first half, the only passages imbued with significant detail, knowledge, and psychological depth are those in which Kaylee talks about books: her love of libraries, her pride in her job, the ways in which books have prevented her from collapsing under the weight of accumulated personal trauma. That Kaylee happens to be trapped inside a library is no coincidence, for this—the worth and weight and endurance of the written word—is clearly Boyes’s true subject, her inspiration for writing this novel in the first place:
One thing that struck me as I flipped through books were statements like “No preface is necessary for this book.” Then the author/editor added one anyway. Most are flowery ways of saying “Here’s my two cents”; or “See how clever I am”; or “I’m not sure you’re going to like this book but please do.” A few add something; most are totally useless; some are so egregiously self-serving they are painful to read. I decided to use preface-type things for my journal.
Sure, I feel guilty about altering texts. I feel guilty every time I rip out a page, w/ or w/o text. But I think about what other people would do if they were in a situation that forced them, in their struggle to survive, to destroy what they had always tried to protect. What would they be willing to sacrifice? It makes me feel better to think that other people would be okay w/ doing what I am doing if they were in my shoes. (pp. 20-21)
Kaylee’s sardonic rebuttal of the art of the preface is sharp and alive; the stumbling, little-girl-lost vibe of the bulk of her narrative is weak by comparison, a tonal dichotomy that is persistent and jarring. Whilst I believed wholeheartedly in Kaylee the book nerd, I did not believe for a second in her appalling experiences with Professor Gulick, so coyly and unconvincingly rendered she might have been describing an episode of Neighbours. I especially did not believe that Kaylee-as-written had given birth to a daughter. The stuff about books rings true in a way the stuff about killer aliens does not.
There’s nothing wrong with the books-as-personal-salvation trope per se—being a lifelong bibliophile I’m a total sucker for book-books—but any writer tempted by this material should never forget how often it has been used before, how quickly it can pall as well as enthral. There are some nice touches here—the Walter Crane illustrations, the “oddly annotated bibliography” detailing the books that “sacrificed printed pages” for Kaylee’s journal (knowing and amusing, these few short pages were my favourite part of the entire novel)—but they are sadly outweighed by the overall sense that the catastrophe narrative is not a story the author is genuinely invested in so much as a convenient metaphor for nerd strength in the face of adversity, an excuse for trotting out the books-are-magic trope yet again.
Neither is this issue resolved in the second, more wide-ranging half of the novel. Here again, there are some nice touches: the story threads relating to Kaylee resolve in a satisfying way, and the explanation for the aliens, when it finally comes, is interesting enough to form the bedrock of an entirely different story. I especially enjoyed the rationale for fertile interspecies sexual partnerships, and the discoveries relating to the social order on the aliens’ home planet grant a fascinating glimpse of the novel-that-could-have-been.
Once again, though, the more imaginative aspects of Trapped in the R.A.W. are stifled by an imbalance between promising imaginative scenarios and unsatisfying, oddly naive characterisation. When we finally catch up with Kaylee’s daughter, for example, she seems weirdly preoccupied with trying to prove that her mother—a woman who has been to hell and back—is not guilty of ... having sex with a married man. Having cleared that one up, Matilda then spends ages giving us the synopsis of a document she refers to as “the smoking gun letter,” in which the nefarious and so-appalling-he’s-boring Professor Gulick reveals details of a bizarre plot to get Kaylee pregnant by a compliant college kid in order that he and his wife—the Witch—end up with the baby:
[Gulick] says his wife suspected he was having an affair with the male student they had hired to watch me. The Witch threatened to tell everyone her husband was gay unless he gave her most of his inheritance. [Gulick] wanted Kaylee to tell people she had had an affair with him, thus muddying the waters on the issue of his sexual preferences and, hopefully, discouraging his wife from going ahead with her plan. (p. 279)
This is an “explanation” that rings problematic on so many levels, up to and including the question of why Matilda, a child of the new era, would be so obsessed with these confused pre-invasion notions of morality in the first place. That the Gulicks are selfish narcissists who have no genuine interest in children anyway is a detail waved casually aside in the service of this ridiculous and unnecessary subplot.
The author’s impulse—to grant her post-invasion world greater depth by providing her central characters with resonant backstories—is a sound one. A recent and highly successful use of this technique can be observed in Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven which, although it flounders a little in portraying its post-catastrophe world, more than makes up for these shortcomings in its searing, knife-bright evocation of the interwoven lives of its characters in the time before the dark.
By contrast, the scenarios Boyes presents are so preposterous and flatly executed that they do not bear scrutiny.
A post-apocalyptic novel with a driving, hard-fisted plot may still succeed as story, even when its characters are less than rounded. Similarly, a novel that intricately examines the relationships and personal histories of characters about to be flattened by a giant meteor may still engage us utterly, even if the fate of the world at large is never revealed. The problem with Trapped in the R.A.W. is that it is lacking in both depth and tension. There is a sensitivity in Boyes’s writing, a big-heartedness, a seriousness of intent that has me longing—still—to be more positive about this novel than I actually feel. What I will reiterate is that I am certain there are readers out there—many of them—who will find consolation and meaning in this book, who will experience it very differently. Trapped in the R.A.W. includes many of the characteristics that have made Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, for example, so popular—found family, inter-species cooperation, generosity of spirit—and it demonstrates much of the same open-hearted faith in humanity. I would encourage anyone who has enjoyed those books to seek out this one.
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