The Short Version: Eric Sanderson wakes up in a room in a house that he does not know – nor, he quickly realizes, can he claim to know anything at all. As strange packages and letters start arriving, he begins to piece together the life that was once his and the life that he may now have to lead – setting him on a path towards the strangest adventure possible.
The Review: How often is it that you get a unique reading experience these days? A book that is completely crazy and insane and also 100% dedicated to said insane craziness – think about a book like Night Film or S. (to think purely of the last 12 months) but then rewind the clock by several years and add a healthy dose of Pratchettian “we’re gonna do something crazy” to the whole mix. I really don’t know how this book has gone so relatively unnoticed by the populace – perhaps it was (and Eric Sanderson might appreciate this) the right book at the wrong time, like Arrested Development in its first run.
There’s a certain joy that comes from reading a book where you know very little about what’s to come and it’s an especially fitting joy with this book, seeing as our hero wakes up with near-complete amnesia. He still retains motor function and linguistic knowledge, all of those ‘basics’, but he knows squat about who or why he is. And Hall just dives in, setting things up like some sort of strange fugue-ish mystery. Things rattle on at this clip for a while and then, suddenly, rather out of nowhere, things get a WHOLE LOT WEIRDER really fast. And it is an amazing turn of events, because suddenly the novel shifts into a second life (not unlike our hero) and takes off like a rocket in a new direction.
Perhaps the most on-the-surface interesting thing about the novel, about the physical book itself, is how much it plays with the structure of words and writing. There are images, made of letters or words. There are blank pages. There are different fonts. There are all of those things that make the folks at Visual Editions go crazy and that, today, seem so de rigueur as authors attempt to become more expressive (and to make the physical book an object worth saving). But this was 2007, when this book came out. Not so ong ago and yet… so wildly long ago. I can’t think of a book that’s come out recently where you’d use The Matrix in your pull-quote or, hell, a book that someone would equate to that movie – but contextually, in 2007, that feels about right.
And actually, although there are lots of analogies one could make and lots of clear influences on Mr. Hall’s work (including, yes, Jaws), it’s obvious to me that The Matrix is actually the best one. Except whereas that film is about computers, about going inside of a computer and realizing you can change that artificial world, this is a book about writing. The concepts created here are at once both a metaphor for writing and a unique imaginative exercise. It’s not Thursday Next’s going-into-a-book, this is something else entirely. And it is spectacular.
In fact, the imagination present in this book is enough for me to overlook some of the… not flaws, per se, but the shortcomings that are inherent in most debut novels (let alone one so ambitious as this). Hall keeps building out his world, taking us from the tiny life of Eric and his house and then making things bigger and bigger, introducing societies and people and villains… but the primary thrust of the story remains relatively small, relatively focused. Ordinarily that wouldn’t seem to be a bad thing – but why, then, did we need to add all of these other things if they weren’t going to be explored? The great quest of the end of the novel remains the same with or without the idea of the Big Bad looming over our characters… but I found that I didn’t care about this particular Big Bad because (as cool as his concept was), we never actually see much from him. He remains entirely abstract, even despite Hall’s attempt to make it all hit somewhat close to home for Eric. I never buy that his quest is measurably changed or made more important by adding that external pressure.
Similarly, the end is… well, it’s a magnificent ending but also a somewhat confusing one. The sharp cliff of the end of this novel is likely to jar readers – it jarred me, for sure. Not because it’s a little ambiguous – I don’t so much mind that – but rather because it feels as though it didn’t need to be confusing in its ambiguity. We’ve been introduced to a world, a new world, and told its rules… but then a new shift happens (not unlike at the end of the regrettable Matrix sequels) and while it is inherently interesting, it is also sudden and coming right at the end of the novel, we’re left to wonder a bit.
Of course, maybe that’s the point: that we’re left to wonder.
Rating: 5 out of 5. If you take joy in reading, in the written word, in writing, in imagination… read this book. Go in with no expectation other than my hearty recommendation – that’s how I went in, on the back of a single exhortative statement from a friend (thanks, Derek!), and it provided me with a gripping, smart, completely unanticipated reading experience. This is a wholly original story, told on its own terms and in its own time. It deserves not to be compared to but rather to be sat next to (on the shelves) things like House of Leaves and Tristram Shandy. And just remember to keep your wits about you, as you go swimming off to other linguistic currents…