Bats of the Republic

batsThe Short Version: Split over two timelines (and several narrators) of one family’s story, Bats… follows lovestruck accidental explorer Zadock Thomas through the Republic of Texas in 1841… and Zeke Thomas, addled scion of a major political family in a city-state of Texas circa 2141. Told through letters, recordings, novels-within-novels, and more, their stories are connected by more than just blood…

The Review: It’s always a great fear of mine that beautifully tricked-out books will sacrifice good storytelling for good design. I felt that way a little bit with City on Fire at times and even Night Film is walking a very fine line (although I’d argue that it does so successfully). Bats of the Republic, so bold in its claims of exceptional design that it proudly holds the subtitle “An Illuminated Novel”, is the new gold standard for a book whose design is jaw-droppingly magnificent… and whose storytelling is utterly banal.

It is a dense object, this book, and every single page has been clearly labored over. Handwritten notes actually look like handwriting as opposed to a “handwriting typeface” in that the letters dance and shift – after all, nobody makes their letters exactly the same way each time. There are beautiful sketches of animals plated throughout the book. Everything is just gorgeous. As an object, just something to look at, it could gain a place of pride not on a shelf but on a coffee table or other place of display (not unlike old-school illuminated manuscripts). Also, there is a real goddamn envelope that says “DO NOT OPEN” that even just a cursory flip through the book will reveal to the reader near the end – and this letter sets up a sort of goal for the reader, for it is of paramount importance to both of our heroes. (If you have not read the book but are planning to do so, please skip to the end as unavoidable SPOILERS are about to arrive after this short break.)
The thing is, the letter is a total MacGuffin. Although cleverly designed (as is the rest of the book), it serves as a complete let-down of an ending – not because we don’t, as it turns out, get to read the actual letter but because the letter itself didn’t really matter anyway. The connection between the two timelines should be relatively obvious early on, or at least something that can be anticipated (if not expected) and when it arrives in an admittedly neat physical trick… it still feels like total mystical mumbo-jumbo. There’s no real resolution and the way Dodson keeps the reader at arm’s length throughout the novel ends up delivering the reader to an ending full of frustration and irritation for all the convoluted storytelling we’ve just gone through.

The two stories are actually more like four. There are two novels within this novel, The City-State and a book confusingly bears a cover implying that it’s called The Bird and Butterfly and written by the Sisters Gray but is in fact called The Sisters Gray. Hints of the temporal complexities to arrive are dappled throughout the two books, including when, in The Sisters Gray, it’s mentioned that the titular sisters’ mother wrote The City-State. Such ouroborosian eatings of the tale [sic] do not stop here. We’re also given a series of letters from Zadock back to his sweetheart (one of the aforementioned sisters) and a series of other letters from a guy called Henry Bartle, the father of a woman in The City-State who is married to Zeke. I suppose the only way to really address the novel is to break it down into these four parts.

Let’s dispatch the letters first. Henry Bartle’s are the most mundane, serving largely as narrative bridges between Zadock’s letters and the world of 2141. His voice never comes out as clear as the others, even when he enters the main story. The first ruptures of the dreamworld (see: Inception) of this book came for me when I tried to balance Bartle’s letters with the supposed novel of The City-State; the center, even early on, would not hold.

Zadock’s letters are slavishly loyal to a somewhat nebbish 1840s voice – to the point that I often found myself skimming them as he depicted life out on the frontier. They often didn’t advance the story except in that Zadock was moving forward through space towards some inevitable conclusion – and while I don’t mind that, necessarily, the pitch seemed off here. Everything else has a weighted pace to it, perhaps because of plot points that spring up and shunt characters into new patterns of movement… but Zadock is, for the first two-thirds of his letters, your typical love-sick guy who maybe shouldn’t be out on the frontier but is anyway. It’s not to say that they’re not interesting or that they’re not worthwhile, but simply that they’re almost relentlessly “ordinary” for what you’d expect from such a character.

The Sisters Gray is perhaps my favorite part of the book. It’s written in a post-Austen/post-Brontë style, skewing more towards that of J.M. Barrie or even Mark Twain in terms of the modernizing voice (albeit not the content). If it feels a little temporally displaced, skewing at times (in voice) towards the 1900s and the likes of P.L. Travers, it can be forgiven – because the plight of Elswyth and her family in the still-relatively-brand-new city of Chicago is rendered with captivating skill. There is a scoundrel, a stolen virtue, a family on the brink of collapse… and also an unexpected twist for the fantastical, with a (potentially crazy) maiden aunt who reads tea leaves and might be a prophet of the Delphic variety.

The City-State, which unfortunately takes up the plurality share of the book as compared to these other bits (or at least it felt like it), is not so successful a pastiche. At times, it gets close to being a genuinely interesting twist on dystopia as seen through the eyes of someone writing in the 1800s – steampunk rules while proper technology as we’ve come to understand it is non-existent – but it often devolves into the worst tropes of the sci-fi genre, the tropes that were rampant in the 1950s. It’s a little hard to consider that this book could’ve been written before 1840, considering that science fiction doesn’t really develop until the 1860s (if the book had sounded more like Mary Shelley than the liberal equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard, I’d be more forgiving). I will admit that it begins fascinatingly enough, dropping us quickly into this strange future that has aspects of everything from The Hunger Games to Jonah Hex, but it devolves into lots of portentously proper-noun’d entities and story developments that even the pulp writers would’ve shook their heads at for being too clearly authorial in their sudden intervention. When it became clear that Dodson had not invested as much effort in making this story as captivating as The Sisters Gray, I began to feel as impatient with it as I often did Zadock’s letters.

All of this leaves me wondering what I’m supposed to take from the story. Is all of this actually relating the very small tale of how Zadock and Elswyth come to be together? Could that actually be, on an almost ridiculous level, how blatantly simple this story is – and that it has just been built out with these other facets that seem like a blurring of space-time but are in fact…
And that’s where this idea falls apart, because how do you account for this contortion, even if you give a liberal allowance for the oddity of the universe? So is this all, then, just a book-length exploration of the bootstrap paradox? The only story of the four (or is it five, if you count the novel itself as not just a combination of the other four but a singular entity all its own) that has any sort of resolution is that specifically recounted in The Sisters Gray – but are we to believe that over the others? These questions (and believe me there are many others) would be refreshing if the book hadn’t forcibly kept me at a distance the whole time I was reading it. In the end, it felt like a beautiful art project whose primary goal was not my literary enjoyment but my aesthetic one. If that’s true, then it succeeded.

Except it’s a novel – and on those grounds, I think it fails.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I almost feel like the object is too beautiful – or that it is beautiful to a fault. It’s so painstakingly crafted that it feels, at times, like a grad school presentation, one of those innovative book-redesigns you see on Tumblr sometimes that make for an instant reblog but aren’t real; they just serve as a calling card for aspiring young designers. The novel itself is tremendously uneven, to the point of sometimes being cringe-inducing… and yet, also, to the occasional point of being not just a great pastiche but a great entity in and of itself. I’m not one to knock someone for ambition, but I can’t help thinking that this book was always going to promise more than its innards could actually live up to. It became a slog very early on and even when it picks up, towards the end of the middle third, it isn’t enough to redeem – because, ultimately, the beauty of the physical storytelling is trying to hard to distract from the flaws of the literal storytelling. And I’ll always want it to be the other way around.

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