Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Salvaged from the Signal: My Review of WHERE

As I mentioned in a previous post, with SF Signal deactivating its, well, signal this month, I've decided to bring over a couple of pieces that I've written for them over the years.

The first is my review of Kit Reed's absolutely wonderful recent novel, WHERE. If you haven't read it yet, by all means, get out there and grab a copy as soon as you can. Why? Read on. Or, you know, just turn off your computer and go to your local bookstore or library and find out for yourself. Or download the e-book to your reader thingy. Just read it.

Meanwhile, I'll be re-posting other items over the next couple of days.

[BOOK REVIEW] One Question Gives Rise to a Multitude of Mysteries in Kit Reed’s WHERE
Posted on July 13, 2015 by Robin Shantz in Book Review // 0 Comments

MY RATING: [5 stars]
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When everyone in Kraventown, South Carolina suddenly disappears in a flash of light, those left behind on the outside try to figure out where their loved ones have gone. Meanwhile, the townspeople who are missing face their own challenge of trying to come to grips with where they are.
The novel is also followed by Reed’s short story, “Military Secrets”, which uses a different perspective to meditate on the theme of how a person’s disappearance affects those left behind.
PROS: A surreal, gipping story with realistic characters, exploring the profound changes in people who have to deal with the mysterious disappearance of loved ones.
CONS: Reed occasionally employs a halting and self-interrupting style of punctuation and grammar for a couple of the characters’ internal monologues, which some readers may find to be jarring. Others who like stories which tie up everything neatly may be dissatisfied with the number of questions left unanswered.

*spoilers ahead*
For such a short word with a simple meaning, “where” can carry a surprising amount of freight. Sometimes, one can answer the question by simply pointing to a location. But often, answering “Where?” requires a lot of backstory. It gives rise to other questions, like “Who?” and “Why?”, that also have to be answered in order to give it proper context and meaning. Sometimes, as we’ve seen through history with stories about ghost ships like the Marie Celeste, the Roanoke colony, and, more recently, the Malaysian Airlines flight that went missing over the Indian Ocean, this simple question can be surprisingly difficult to answer. In her new novel, WHERE, Kit Reed does a brilliant job of exploring the effect that a mysterious disappearance of a person or people has on those left behind – as well as those who have seemingly vanished.
The story opens with architect Davy Ribault in a foul mood. A mysterious stranger, Rawson Steele, has come to Davy’s island community of Kraventown, South Carolina and has begun trying to insinuate himself into the neighbourhood, paying particular attention to Davy’s girlfriend, Merrill Poulnot. Jealous, Davy’s had an argument with Merrill, and leaves the house one morning on a bad note. Strangely, Davy allows himself to be drawn out of town by Steele on the pretext of an important meeting; Steele doesn’t show, and in the distance there’s a flash of light. When Davy tries to return home, he finds the police and National Guard have cordoned-off Kraven Island and won’t allow anyone onto it. It appears all of the townsfolk have vanished without a trace. Now Davy has to try to get onto the island without getting caught, to try to figure out what’s happened to Merrill and the others.
Meanwhile, Merrill and the others wake up to find themselves in a whitewashed replica of their town (in a scene that feels vaguely like a nod to both The Prisoner and 2001), apparently situated in some kind of desert. The unseen forces behind the community’s kidnapping only communicate by supplying news coverage of the disappearance on a giant screen in the town’s square, providing food and clothing by hidden mechanisms, or issuing orders through a sound system. As Merrill tries to figure out where they are and what’s going on, her abusive father, a former judge, begins to take steps to reclaim his control of the community. Rawson Steele also shows up again, seemingly able to come and go as he pleases, unwilling to provide any meaningful answers, and with a renewed interest in Merrill.
As we get into WHERE, it quickly becomes apparent that the story grapples with two of Reed’s favourite tropes:
The first is the notion of a familiar, banal location made surreal. We see this both in the Kraventown of the known world, and its pale replica. The quiet, unremarkable Southern bedroom community that has been Davy’s home for a few years is now walled-off from the rest of the world behind a blockade of police, Coast Guard, part-time soldiers, media, and bystanders. When he manages to sneak onto the island, Davy finds the town completely silent, with everything left exactly as it was when everyone disappeared one morning without warning in the middle of whatever they’d been doing. Where once there were many friends and acquaintances, Davy now only finds a dog; a frightened, mentally-challenged man who’s unable to provide any answers; and potentially trigger-happy police and National Guard patrols.
For Merrill, the replica might look like an all-white version of the town where she’s lived all her life, filled with the people she knows, but it’s in no way the same. Beyond the lack of colour and the uncomfortable weather, the behaviour of the townsfolk is different. With the hidden machines seeing to their basic needs, there’s nothing for them to do. With the oppressive weather, and, more importantly, the fear of the unseen forces that have kidnapped them weighing on their shoulders, they stay in their duplicate homes. On the few occasions when everyone comes out and gathers together, people who were formerly friends and neighbours quickly become irrational and violent.
The second theme common in many of Reed’s stories is the idea that it’s dangerous for an individual to be separated from family. Whether it’s a person’s biological family, a collection of friends, or an ad-hoc group that comes together during the crisis, in Where and Reed’s other tales, if a character isn’t part of a group, they’re emotionally and physically vulnerable. Having lost Merrill and his community, Davy feels guilty, frightened, and isolated. His need to find them puts him in danger when he tries to sneak back onto Kraven Island — from painful jellyfish stings, to the likelihood of being shot in his own community by the authorities. Turning his back on his friend Earl’s offer of shelter — a chance to become part of another family — costs Davy a friend and the emotional support that entails, and the opportunity to put the disappearance behind him and begin healing by starting a new life. In fact, by leaving Earl and his family, Davy himself symbolically vanishes. Ultimately, being cut-off from his friends and family for so long puts Davy at risk of being permanently separated from them, even if he finds them.
We see this with Merrill as well: she loses Davy even before the disappearance due to an argument, which precludes him from being there for her when the townsfolk are taken. She also leaves her brother behind (twice), inadvertently isolating herself. And her only dependable ally in the community is eventually lost. All of these incidents leave her isolated as Rawson Steele relentlessly pursues her.
This vulnerability is also profoundly illustrated in Merrill’s brother, Ned. At the beginning of the story, he’s already been abandoned by Merrill, who’s fled their abusive father. Consequently, as a means of effecting his own emotional escape, Ned has immersed himself in online martial arts fantasy gaming – turning to relationships with insubstantial, virtual friends who are inadequate as a family substitute because they are not, and cannot, be there for him when he’s engulfed in the real crisis of the Kraventown disappearance. Ned is therefor left feeling deeply alone and unsure of himself and the world when his online connection is cut as he and the rest of the town are taken. When Merrill abandons him again to go off with Rawson Steele – leaving Ned behind out of a legitimate concern for his safety – the effect is that he’s left alone, at the mercy of their father, and is literally swept along with the old judge’s madness.
So important in this book is the notion of being part of a group, that at every turn we see people trying to join or create families or tribes: Rawson is constantly attempting to attach himself to Merrill; Ned, in search of some sort of adult guidance, wants to tag along with Steele; the judge, feeling purposeless and depressed when alone at home, desperately and repeatedly tries to reassert his dominance in the community; and Davy briefly bonds with a dog that was left behind, as he wanders the deserted streets of Kraventown.
But, even more importantly, at the heart of this story is the notion that disappearances happen all the time. That, big or small, they change the people involved – both those who go missing, and those left behind – forever. Davy and Merrill argue and Davy walks out (a disappearance of stability and trust from their relationship), and they have to deal with the emotional consequences – and possibly the vanishing of the relationship itself. Earl’s mother has dementia, and so is lost to her son in a very real way, even though she’s still living in his house. Merrill leaves her family home for her own safety and emotional well-being, but is left with the guilt of leaving Ned behind – a disappearance that leaves Ned without a stable, caring adult influence. Likewise, Boogie, a friend of Davy’s who suffered brain damage in an accident years before, and who is the only human to have been left behind in the Kraventown disappearance, has lost the person who he used to be before the injury, along with his future, and his ability to cope with crisis. Merrill’s father, the judge, has lost his wife, his daughter, his job, and his standing in the community (and one could argue his sanity as well), and is left emotionally adrift and at the mercy of his own mad, desperate impulses to get it all back. All of these disappearances have profoundly altered these characters, even before the unknown powers descend on the town and spirit everyone away. The story also tells us that even if these missing people do come back, they are changed. This is Reed pointing out that any disappearance has consequences; that, at some point, everyone around us affected in very deep and meaningful – if quiet and unseen – ways. Where reminds us that people lose a part of themselves through these everyday disappearances, as much as they do in the big mysteries that dominate the rumour mill, media headlines, and history books.
Hand in hand with this is the theme that when people are missing, they’re still with those who’ve been left behind in a very real way. For family and friends who have lost someone suddenly and in an unexplained way, there’s the constant emotional shadow of grief and guilt to deal with, and the burden of thoughts that obsessively keep turning to the mystery of where their loved one has gone, what’s happened to them, and if things could have been changed if only someone had known something or done something differently. We see this in Davy’s frequent replaying of his last argument with Merrill before he stormed out and the town disappeared. We see him coming back again and again to his encounters with Rawson Steele. And we see him obsessing over the question of how nearly every resident in the town could just vanish. Merrill, Steele, and the others are always with him. So much so, that Davy’s incapable of accepting Earl’s offer of a new home – their emotional presence pulls him back, ultimately making him incapable of moving on.
We see this as well in Reed’s short story “Military Secrets,” which is included in the book after the conclusion of WHERE. The story is about a schoolgirl trying to come to grips with the loss of her father, a military serviceman, who’s listed as Missing In Action. To the girl, her father is in a strange in-between place, where her feelings for him, and his effect on her life are still very real, and the lack of a dead body creates the possibility that he might still be out there somehow. It’s a feeling and experience that puts a distance between the girl and her classmates and teachers, one that’s made into a physical separation when she’s taken out of school and put on a bus. And yet, it’s an experience that connects her to a different group, one who’s members are other children who share the same sense of loss-and-yet-not-loss – orphans from across time who also have fathers who have gone missing in war. This shared experience makes them more real, more immediate, and more identifiable to her than the uncomprehending and unsympathetic – and therefore somewhat alien – schoolmates and teachers she has left behind.
While Kit Reed’s WHERE may deliberately refrain from answering all of the plot-related questions it poses, it does answer its main thematic question: where do we go when someone close to us is lost, has disappeared? To a purgatory of the self where we are never the same. And as for the question of “Where are the people we have lost?”, Reed’s answer is “Right here.”

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