The Short Version: Objects. History. Adultery. Murder. Death. Bodies. Animals. A house – several houses. Bible verses. A beguiling maelstrom of language that circles around a story of a marriage and a murder without ever actually landing on it.
The Review: It’s very rare that I find books like this a pleasurable reading experience. Language is a wondrous thing but when I don’t have something to tether it to – be it plot, characters, even just a concrete idea – I find that it becomes indulgent and unnecessary, a feat more of poetry than prose and (for my money) easily accomplished by monkeys on typewriters, as the ones who don’t write Hamlet will undoubtedly write something like, say, There is No Year.
So imagine my delight and surprise to find myself breathlessly engaged with this novel – novella, really, as it’s only about 130 pages. Perhaps it has to be read in the right season, which I would argue is right this very minute. Maybe I would’ve loved it even as the flowers started blooming in spring – but something tells me this is the right place to be. For Jason Schwartz has written what is essentially a novella-length version of the American Horror Story credit sequence(s): unsettling, choppy, eerie… and yet strangely (and wonderfully) compelling.
The overwhelming majority of this book is comprised of odd images, shattered by other images or thoughts crossing through: a boy with a bird in his throat, a body turned into an object turned into a story, a house in semi-rural Pennsylvania (a land I know well, which also gave me an inside track to the novel in a way) that seems to shift under the reader’s eye. But it is not the house that shifts – you almost come to believe, over the course of the reading, that it is (to be really cliché about it) you who are shifting. There is a tug to Schwartz’s words that I cannot fully explain and it keeps you off balance, the story slipping away from you even as you try to grasp it.
And, admittedly, you do get some help from the back cover synopsis – which alerts you, in advance, to the fact that this is the story of one or possibly two murders. The adultery and all that stuff seems pretty clear in the story but the murder is so much of an oblique idea throughout the large majority of the novel that you can never be sure that’s what’s being discussed… unless you are forewarned a bit that there was probably some murder goin’ on.
Although this might also be part of the point: our narrator seems to be grappling with mental demons and perhaps the novel is his mind unraveling as he desperately tries to keep away from the thought of what he’s done. I don’t know. And I can’t know – the novel does not tell you. And while that so often, in pretentious novels like this, bothers me… it’s just done so well here. I wish I could hold this book up to authors who push at boundaries and say “if you’re going to do it, fine – but you have to mine even deeper than traditional prose does, like this book.”
Rating: 4 out of 5. I had dreams last night that felt like flashes from this novel. You absolutely have to pay attention to the words and allow your mind to detach with them a bit – but if you do, you’re apt to be rewarded by an exceptional and unsettling mental vacation. It’s all muted browns and reds, mixed with crisp whites, like a vision of a girl standing in a wheat field as seen through an old warped window of an old warped house. And even now, as I try to grasp at it more firmly, it slides away – like the best dreams and nightmares often do.