The Short Version: Owen Burr is meant to play water polo in the Athens Olympics but after an accident in his last collegiate game leaves him blind in one eye, he takes off to Berlin where he falls in with a dangerous artist crowd. Meanwhile, his father sets off in his footsteps to try and find him – inciting a minor international incident or two in the process. Their stories take them from California to Athens to Berlin to Iceland, a minor epic of their own devising.
The Review: There’s a lot of mythology in this novel, almost more than you might realize while you’re actually reading it. I should’ve noticed it, of course, when Owen takes only a two volume copy of The Odyssey with him when he leaves – and, of course, the color-gods he describes. But it wasn’t until the last section of the novel in Iceland, when Professor Burr is attempting to find Owen and he gets laughed at because the man he’s describing sounds an awful lot like the great god Odin. And for a moment or two, the boundary between this world (the world in which this novel takes place) and a more Gaiman-y world of gods-among-us shivered – didn’t break, just wavered a little bit. The gods had bestowed their divinity upon us for a fleeting moment or two.
For Owen and his father are both gods among men, in their own way. Owen, at over six-and-a-half feet tall with a fanatically sculpted body, literally towers over others – a paragon of form. And his father, Professor Burr, sparks an international incident with words and a single misinterpreted gesture, bringing his own obscure theory to life in the process. But they’re also both incredibly, stupidly human: you can’t make mistakes like these two both do and be anything other than a human being. For Owen, the mistake is his blind (pun lightly intended) dash into the unknown to attempt to redefine his life after everything he’d been working towards was stripped from him and for Joseph, it’s the similarly blind dash after his son (and throwing the Molotov cocktail, if we’re going to talk about mistakes in a broader sense). As such, they hover in the liminal space that humanity often strives for, the right balance between perfection and failure that defines who we are at our very best.The other characters, as some commentators have pointed out, sometimes feel a little more mechanical – they serve a purpose, almost exclusively, instead of getting to live their own unique lives. But that isn’t a problem, not when the point of this novel is to follow the stories of two men and not everyone who they encounter. For example, a real person appears with Joseph in Athens: Jean Baudrillard. In this book, he’s not a real man though; he is entirely a plot device, helping spur Burr into action and get him out of the potentially deadly cul-de-sac of the Athens plot point. And that’s okay! The ridiculous art-villainy of Kurt (the Berlin artist who leads the semi-Warholian collective that Owen tumbles into) is similarly quite alright: we don’t need him to be anything approaching ‘human’ because a) those people actually exist, who do what he does, and b) the way he takes advantage of Owen is the catalyst for Owen then taking the next step. Without Kurt or Baudrillard, the Burr boys would take a lot more work to get to their next destinations – so why not spur them along as a surprising secondary character in a myth might do for the myth’s hero? But the important thing to note is that this isn’t a BAD thing. Stevie is a weird, flawed, fun female foil for Owen and she does exist as a device, but she’s also not a caricature or some kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl just because she furthers the plot instead of getting her own arc of development. This is a novel about Owen and Joseph – it doesn’t need anybody else to be as developed.
Although the book does have a little bit too much philosophy at the beginning and things take a little while to really all start clicking, there was a single moment that (for me) told me I’d enjoy this book no matter what happened when it ended: Owen’s description of colors and the gods. He, as a young man, would experience a wash of color (four particular Pantone colors, in fact) and each of those came to be represented by a Greek deity. It’s not quite synesthesia but it feels kindred to that phenomenon: the brain creating a response to a stimulus that doesn’t quite line up with how brains are “normally” meant to behave. Chancellor doesn’t go too far into the reality/weirdness of the experience, instead using it as an explanation of what Owen’s life was like and then saying that the gods had left him when he lost his eye. Again, the mythic themes are clanging like a gong and sending ripples throughout the entire book. It’s delightful.
The only real critique of the book is that it sometimes doesn’t feel like it quite coheres as well as it should. The two storylines are, for long stretches of the books, imbalanced: Owen’s story is more interesting (it feels like it has more drive, even though he doesn’t have a distinct objective or goal in mind) for long stretches until, suddenly, Burr’s story fires up with the Molotov cocktail and now his search has an intensity that it didn’t before. The slightly-out-of-phase timeline also makes things a bit difficult to track and it’s only when (SPOILERS) the two men come together that the novel finally snaps back into the lean athletic form it sometimes trotted out. I’m left wondering if this was, perhaps, intentional.
Rating: 4 out of 5. This book had appeared on my radar when the great John Warner wrote about it for the Chicago Tribune in his Biblioracle column but it wasn’t until it made the ToB bracket (thanks in no small part to John’s advocacy, I’d wager) that I actually picked it up – and it’s a testament to how a good book can go unnoticed without a few important activists. For this book is not a groundbreaker, it is not going to change your life – but it is a damn good debut novel; it’s like a more serious Where’d You Go, Bernadette, taking that novel’s screwball world-travelling tendencies and playing them a little straighter. Chancellor has a lot of thoughts – about art, philosophy, the classics & mythology, international relations, Iceland, probably many others – and we need more novelists who’ve got thoughts and want to share them. Is it a perfect book? No, but how many first novels really are? Did I enjoy it? Yes, I most certainly did.