A decade ago, the small town of Switchcreek, Tennessee, was suddenly and inexplicably struck by a devastating viral outbreak. This affliction, which came to be known as Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS), radically rewrote the DNA of the inhabitants of this previously sleepy and unremarkable Southern backwater. The majority of those who succumbed to the condition died slow and painful deaths, while those who survived found their biology fundamentally transformed. Initially quarantined by a fearful government, Switchcreek was eventually allowed to restore communication with the outside world, but its inhabitants now found themselves regarded as, at best, a ghastly freak-show and, at worst, as a sitting target for murderous, bigoted rednecks. Paxton Martin, the protagonist of the novel, is one of those lucky enough to have been unaffected by TDS. Now, after a decade living in Chicago, trying to distance himself from the collective tragedy which scarred his adolescence, he is forced to return home by the apparent suicide of a close friend.
The TDS outbreak has transformed most of the surviving inhabitants of Switchcreek into members of one of three biologically distinct communities, or "clades," each of which confront their own challenges and seem to present alternative evolutionary paths for humanity. The first of the communities to evolve after the outbreak were the argos, hulking grey-skinned giants who are apparently infertile, but are easily capable of snapping a human being in two. The second wave of mutations resulted in betas, or "blanks," gaunt, red-skinned individuals who appear hauntingly inexpressive to their human peers. Female betas are able to reproduce asexually and their entirely female offspring, who themselves become fertile at an unnaturally early age, seem to be empowered and enthusiastic about the possibility of an all-female future for their kind. The final clade to emerge were the charlies, or "chubs," grotesquely bloated men and women, some of whom secrete a potent psychotropic drug, colloquially known as "the vintage," which has spawned a thriving black market in bodily fluids within Switchcreek.
The Devil's Alphabet succeeds in evoking a potent, at times almost cloying, atmosphere despite, or perhaps because of, its straightforward, unpretentious prose style. The reader, like Paxton Martin himself, is slowly but relentlessly drawn into a Gothic murk of corruption, repressed memories, and secrets that refuse to stay buried. Paxton is an essentially passive character who spends much of the novel as the victim of either threatened or actual acts of violence, and the longer he spends in Switchcreek trying to reconnect with his roots, the greater danger he is in of being overcome by his own physical and moral inertia. The narrative follows his attempts to repair damaged relationships with three people close to him, each of whom was transformed by TDS, and each of whom he abandoned when he fled Switchcreek a decade earlier. The first of these is Deke, his childhood friend, now a gentle argo giant, who does his best to protect his friend from harm as he alienates the townsfolk. The second is his estranged, widowed father, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher brought low by his transformation into a swollen, corpulent charlie. Paxton's relationship with his father provides some of the most uncomfortable moments in the novel, as he unwittingly becomes addicted to the vintage and it becomes unclear whether he is seeking to care for his ailing father through a sense of guilt, or in the hope of supporting his own habit. The third individual Paxton must make amends to is Jo Lynn, another of his old friends, a beta who has sought after the truth about TDS and its consequences, and made powerful enemies amongst the clades as a result. It is her funeral that brings Paxton home to Switchcreek, and his suspicion that she was murdered that encourages him to continue her abortive investigations.
The real strength of this novel lies in its nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the three clades which have emerged from the TDS outbreak. It is at its most affecting when portraying the discomfort, insecurities and humiliations suffered by those suffering from the condition, whether it is the lumbering argos, living in constant fear of harming those around them and doomed to extinction by their own sterility, or the charlies, reduced to little more than immobile, drug-producing commodities. It soon becomes clear that the clades are vital defence mechanisms for the inhabitants of Switchcreek, self-supporting and self-regulating cliques which provide alternative models for organizing human society. Beleaguered, often self-appointed, community leaders strive to protect their own in difficult circumstances, often entailing moral compromises—the starkest example of which is provided by canny old Aunt Rhonda, Switchcreek's charlie mayor, whose care-home for her stricken kin gives her an effective monopoly over the supply of the vintage, making her part community activist, part mobster. Throughout, the importance of a sense of community, with all its inherent contradictions, is emphasized and the folksy Southern authenticity of the people of Switchcreek, whatever their appearance, is contrasted with Paxton's rootless existence in Chicago.
The Devil's Alphabet, by relating the story of a restless, unfocused, and increasingly drug-dependent protagonist does occasionally run the risk of losing its narrative tension. Its conclusion also seems slightly anti-climactic, although this is largely due to its deliberate unwillingness to provide a definitive explanation for the nature and consequences of TDS. Several of the characters do voice their own explanations: Paxton's father regards the outbreak as the wrath of a vengeful Old Testament God, while Jo Lynn's rationalisation, which is developed at some length but never confirmed, is that the outbreak is a quantum virus, transmitting itself from one alternate universe to another, rewriting the nature of humanity as it goes. However, the novel refuses to provide any straight answers or to give a clear indication of how events will progress after its conclusion, by which time it is becoming clear that events in Switchcreek are only the beginning of a far bigger story. Ultimately the reader is left with little in the way of conclusive answers, but with a lingering sense of claustrophobia and unease.
David J. Schwartz
Going by the jacket copy, you might expect Daryl Gregory's second novel to be a cross between the you-can't-go-home-again genre and a Southern gothic, with monsters. Kirkus compares it to the work of Stephen King. In truth, though, the story is less reminiscent of Wise Blood than of Northern Exposure, the setting less Salem's Lot than, say, David Milch's Deadwood, or even the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy. The Devil's Alphabet is a novel about creating community, a first contact novel, a murder mystery, and a story of (arrested) self-realization. There's an element of bio-existential horror here, too, but for the most part Gregory concentrates not on the cosmic but on the domestic—the question of how to live with catastrophic change is what's central, and compelling, here.
Thirteen years before the novel starts, Switchcreek, Tennessee was the epicenter of the Transcription Divergence Syndrome, which swept through the town and transformed some—but not all—of the townspeople into one of three creatures: gigantic and powerful argos; matriarchal, asexually reproducing betas; and massively obese charlies. Some of those who were struck by the Changes did not survive, and some, like Paxton Martin, were "skips," unaffected, at least outwardly. TDS killed Pax's mother and turned his father, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, into a charlie. Pax hasn't been to Switchcreek in eleven years.
When he does return—brought back by the apparent suicide of his childhood friend Jo—he finds a town that's found a sort of equilibrium with the violent transformations of a decade before. His father's former church secretary, Rhonda, has become a charlie and the town mayor. His friend Deke is married and owns a small carpentry business that builds oversized furniture for argos like himself and his wife. The town council has representatives from all three new species (they refer to themselves as "clades"), as well as the "skips." But every fictional small town must have secrets and complexities lurking beneath the surface, and Gregory simultaneously honors and subverts this tradition. Of course there is more to the truth of Jo's death, and of course Rhonda is up to something, but the truth is neither as simple nor as blandly sinister as it might appear at first glance.
In fact, the character of Rhonda is one of the most successful things about the novel—she's sweetly implacable, capable, and complex, sort of a Sun Tzu Sugarbaker, exactly the sort of supporting character that's capable of overshadowing an Everyman protagonist like Pax. When we meet him Pax is drifting; he lives in Chicago, working in the hazy restaurant world, never having had a significant relationship, never having found an ambition. Whether it's PTSD or just slacker inertia, he hasn't changed or progressed since leaving Switchcreek, but the Switchcreek he knows isn't there anymore. Gregory brings this home in an uncomfortable way when Pax visits his father. No longer a preacher, barely able to stir from his TV couch, Harlan Martin is as unpleasant as ever, but Pax's return triggers something in the older man; as they spend time together, his father begins first to hallucinate and then to produce a liquid from his skin, something which Pax inadvertently ingests and is powerfully affected by—addicted to, in fact.
It's this twist that draws Pax more deeply into the new Switchcreek and the various détentes and rapprochements that have formed between the enclaves; there's an economy of interaction at work in The Devil's Alphabet that overlays that of the U.S. dollar. It turns out that the older male charlies produce the "Vintage," which has some influence over the female of the species, and Rhonda (of course) is controlling the distribution. (One of the novel's central questions is whether or not Rhonda is trafficking in the vintage, like a rural methamphetamine kingpin.) But no one can explain why it affects Pax the way it does. Pax is, in some respects, a curiously incurious choice for a protagonist, which explains why Gregory chooses to buttress his viewpoint with those of Rhonda and Deke; there are parts of this mystery that he will simply never be privy to, and not just because he has become an Outsider.
In fact Pax turns out to be the locus for most of the unanswered questions in this novel, the first of those being, was he really left unchanged by TDS? Given the symbiotic, almost incestuous, relationship between him and his father, it seems that the answer is no, but Gregory never explains. Pax's sexuality is also left indeterminate and unconsummated; we know that he, Jo, and Deke experimented together as adolescents, after Jo and Deke had both changed. In a flashback, Pax recalls how his father discovered the three of them:
That morning Jo lay between them, Deke with his arm under both their shoulders, Pax with his head and hand against her round, smooth belly. She'd told them that she could feel the child—they didn't know yet that there were two—rolling and moving. [. . .] Jo was terrified and excited—keyed up in a way she'd never felt before, she said. Paxton was merely terrified. It wasn't just that she was pregnant, it was that she was the first person with TDS—argo, beta, or charlie—to carry a child. No one could tell them what the child inside would look like, or even whether Jo's new body could survive a pregnancy.[ . . .]
The rain must have masked the sound of Harlan's car. He walked straight in. [. . .] Harlan Martin was not the behemoth he would become, but the eighteen months since the Changes had doubled him; his weight, his strength, his anger. His father had developed a hair-trigger temper. And why not: His wife was dead, his church was falling apart, and his only son had insisted on defying him, disappointing him, disgracing him. [. . .]
"My God, Paxton," his father said, his voice filled with disgust. "What in heaven's name have you done?" (pp. 99-100)
It's this incident that leads to Pax's departure from Switchcreek, but it's as though the interruption has left him somehow unfinished. As an adult, he can't seem to decide what he wants, even when a decisive opportunity presents itself. This is not an issue of the character's bisexuality, but rather of Pax's capacity for intimacy, and the way the question is posed, confronted, and then more or less forgotten. Pax's self-discovery is central to the novel, but it's somewhat unsatisfying, at least for this reader, because in the end it's only the first step on a long road.
There's a parallel between this and the book as a whole, especially as the delicate relationship between Switchcreek and the rest of the country is threatened by a second TDS incident in another part of the world. Throughout The Devil's Alphabet Gregory presents theories to explain TDS, some more or less scientific, some metaphysical, without ever settling on one explanation. Given his deftness in portraying the relationships in the book, and the subtlety with which he handles the mystery of Jo's death, it's possible that this is intentional; some mysteries cannot be solved, some of us will never really know ourselves. Or perhaps he's suggesting that the two are connected in some unstated way—perhaps Pax is a conduit of some sort, a catalyst or a carrier. This is the risk of subtlety when you're a relatively new writer. Not having read Gregory's widely praised debut, Pandemonium, I haven't yet built a relationship of trust (or lack thereof) with his work; I can't say whether I think he's leaving questions deliberately unanswered, or if he's leaving them hanging because he's not sure of the answers himself.
In another novel, this uncertainty could be fatal; but Gregory has such a sure hand with details that his story and characters feel surprisingly grounded. The fact that it doesn't fully satisfy some genre expectations is not, to this reviewer, a flaw in and of itself, especially when there is some question as to which genre this is. This is, after all, a story about catastrophic evolution (or inter-dimensional invasion) that somehow never feels over the top, that feels like it's about real people even when they are barely identifiable as human, that asks good questions about whether society is better based on rules or on relationships. The Devil's Alphabet is good, verging on great, and Gregory is raising expectations.
Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared in numerous venues; his novel, Superpowers, was nominated for a Nebula Award. He lives in St. Paul and blogs at http://snurri.livejournal.com.