The Short Version: In a near-future that looks eerily possible – shady Big Pharma taking control, strange weather & fauna events, etc… but mostly the same messed-up ennui we all feel now – we follow the lives of several residents of Ivyland, NJ over a fractured span of twenty or so years.
The Review: I don’t remember how this book first made it onto my radar. I have it written down in a notebook as of May of this year, but I didn’t give it any serious thought until it popped up on the 2013 Tournament of Books bracket. Pleasantly surprised (although I knew almost immediately, even without reading it, that it was filling the Green Girl first-round young-person’s-ennui sacrificial role), I picked it up asap. It’s certainly an arresting little book, bright red with the oxygen mask on the cover. Wonderfully, the contents of the book are about as arresting as the cover – although it does falter towards the end.
There’s a certain sub-genre of stories that can’t be accurately shelved by any currently-used descriptor – possibly because no descriptor can accurately encompass it. I’m talking about, for lack of a better term, the “twentysomething” genre. Garden State was sort of the first one, although that movie came out when I was 16. We’re part of the “millennial” generation, I’m told, and these are the stories that slowly but surely seem to be percolating out of us. The concept is not new, certainly: The Graduate is sort of the ur-twentysomething story. But show me a twentysomething who firmly believes that they are settled, confident in the path their life seems to be taking, and positive about the future – and if it isn’t someone working in finance, I’d be surprised. We’re facing an increasingly fucked up world – a world that continues to be brutally and repeatedly, yes, fucked by the generations older than us – and feeling adrift in this weird netherworld that exists between school and “real life”. Because none of us are living a “real life” at the moment, not really. At least none of us in major metropolitan areas are. Except the finance kids.
Anyway, this is the dystopia that Miles Klee conjures up with Ivyland. He takes his cues from classic near-future stories: a shady pharmaceutical company that seems to run everything, a panoply of readily available drugs, a massive caterpillar infestation in the titular town, and a strange structural degradation causing bridges to collapse and the Statue of Liberty to slouch. But there’s no real sense that this is the future. You know, consciously, that it is – but it isn’t like Super Sad True Love Story, where Shteyngart took what was happening in the present and (terrifyingly presciently) projected it forward in a satirical fashion. This is much more insidious because it feels much more like tomorrow. Or like it was a step sideways, in the Chronic City vein. The whole Van Vetchen procedure thing feels absolutely like something that could happen, as does the perfectly barbed observation that the procedure itself maybe messes up more people than the disease it’s meant to combat would… but nobody wants to take that risk, do they?
In the same way that Garden State felt like it was a slice of reality, painful and wonderful all at once, so too does this – only this is the dark shadow version of that film. I’m not above drawing the parallel and it is an easy one, since Ivyland is in New Jersey (possibly, although not definitely, Princeton – everything’s been renamed since Endless Pharmaceuticals took over). Even beyond to the excellent playlist that Mr. Klee created for largehearted boy (because I definitely give Zach Braff some credit for how popular well-curated indie soundtracks have become), there are similarities that go far deeper than the surface text: Zach Braff and Miles Klee both tapped into a welling ennui that masks a welling fear that is felt by every single “millennial”. But it’s also different. This is more intelligent, put bluntly. It’s less for the hipsters obsessed with “this song will change your life” and more for the folks who sit at a bar and (between stories of drunken escapades from nights since past) quietly panic about gun violence, superflu, global warming, and all of that. It feels, in that way, like it was written for me – for the me reading it right now, too.
The story itself is fractured, both in time and space, and it can be kind of difficult to keep track of who is who and how everyone is (or is not) connected. Aidan, brother to Cal, is friends with Henri. They all went to school with DH and Lev and the cops (I think)? Hecuba is DH’s mom. Cal is on a moon mission that is, secretly, failing – and he’ll be the first man to die in space. Other characters briefly interrupt our narrative, including the husband to the crazy French anarchist/professor who may or may not be responsible for the Statue of Liberty thing and a radio-show duo. But the sense of time is all very hazy too, as though we’ve all done too many drugs to keep things straight; the general timeline is laid out in the chapter headings but even that can feel like it might be not be entirely accurate. And by the time we get to the end of the novel, there is a slight twinge of disappointment: the stories don’t, exactly, seem to go anywhere. Which is, of course, very twentysomething, isn’t it? But there’s a hint – more than a hint, especially in the first half of the novel – that there’s going to be a lot more examination of the creepy Endless folks and why the caterpillars have invaded and that it’d all have a bit more pulse. Instead, it turns out that this simply is a twentysomething novel that happens to be set in the near future as opposed to the other way around.
But the writing is sharp and poignant. A prolonged sequence – might’ve been the longest in the book, although that might also be my mind interpreting it that way – where Aidan and Phoebe and Henri are at a party at a shore house, confused by drugs and booze and hormones, was one of the most vivid things I’ve read in a very long time. I know the feeling of those parties. I went to some of those parties, in Jersey, as a high schooler (the age they were at the time). But I also went to some of those parties closer to home (side note: “Filthydelphia” got a big laugh out of me, Mr. Klee) – and they all feel united by a common thread. The stream of (distorted) consciousness from Aidan that makes up that chapter wormed its way into my heart and made me remember the way things used to be – how simple everything was, in all of its glorious confusion, at that age. Think I’m hyperbolizing? Read that chapter and tell me you don’t have a little twinge of memory, even just a flash.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A lot of things about this book pushed all the right buttons. I love some dystopia, I love philosophy, I love an adventurous but also grounded authorial voice, and I love the melancholy that comes from reading about people who are just as adrift as I am (and all of us twentysomethings are). But the book gets a bit lost as it goes on – things get more surreal, there are odd plot twists that don’t quite land because we’ve not had enough proper background, and the drugged-esque fractal quality of the storytelling becomes a burden on the actual story itself. That makes it more frustrating of a read than it needs to be – but the sheer evocation of everything that we (me, speaking for twentysomethings) feel about the world on a given day… and the memories of simpler times… and the muted but ever-present fear of what’s to come… this is one hell of a debut. Order it, find it (there are few copies in existence at the moment), track it down – and give the killer soundtrack a spin while you’re at it.