11/30/15

Zachary Thomas Dodson - Bridging historical, western, and dystopian SF settings as it moves between storylines, this steampunk cyborg of a novel flits between genre expectations. As it moves among several modes of writing, from love letters to a 19th century novel to bureaucratic conversation transcriptions, its representation on the page shifts to suit the form

dodson-bats-cover




<i>Bats of the Republic</i> by Zachary Thomas Dodson Review
Zachary Thomas Dodson, Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel, Doubleday, 2015.
www.zachdodson.com/batsoftherepublic/






With plotlines set in multiple centuries, Dodson’s “illuminated novel” brings together the historical and the futuristic, all the while working with an array of storytelling techniques.


Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel of adventure, featuring hand-drawn maps and natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets and science-fictional diagrams, and even a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel—an intrigue wrapped in innovative design.   
In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission. When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible...
     Three hundred years later, the world has collapsed and the remnants of humanity cling to a strange society of paranoia. Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope from his grandfather, an esteemed senator. When that letter goes missing, Zeke engages a fomenting rebellion that could free him—if it doesn’t destroy his relationship, his family legacy, and the entire republic first.
     As their stories overlap and history itself begins to unravel, a war in time erupts between a lost civilization, a forgotten future, and the chaos of the wild. Bats of the Republic is a masterful novel of adventure and science fiction, of elliptical history and dystopian struggle, and, at its riveting core, of love.






Bats of the Republic is a waking dream of America gone sideways: it’s familiar, enchanting, and just pretty damned weird in the most beguiling possible ways. Zachary Thomas Dodson has made a magnificent book.”—Audrey Niffenegger



“Amazing. Actually amazing. Zachary Thomas Dodson has created a new form to tell his story, and in so doing, he has found a way to fuse adventure to love, weld science fiction to sorrow, and encircle everything in a winsome, mystifying experience of art, illustration, and design.  Like the living secrets its hero finds in the deep, forgotten caves of Texas, Bats of the Republic is itself a hidden, undiscovered beauty.”—Patrick Somerville



"In Bats of the Republic, even the surprises are full of surprises."—Amelia Gray



“Incredible … Dodson’s vision of American society after the Collapse invokes all our fears of surveillance, nepotism, and discrimination.” —Barnes & Noble Review
 
“Zachary Thomas Dodson’s first novel feels destined to make a splash with its sprawling combination of science fiction and mysticism, art and text, western and dystopia … a puzzle box of a novel with beautiful art and astounding breadth of imagination, and the result begs to be opened.”
Shelf Awareness
 
“Dodson’s ambitious literary debut combines elements of a Wild West adventure with aspects of a dystopian sci-fi thriller … Extravagant and mesmerizing, Dodson’s complex, evocative tale gradually reveals a mythos surrounding love, adventure, and the natural world.”—Booklist



Dodson’s debut is a creatively illustrated tale of letters lost and found in the vein of J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. After a vague catastrophe called the Collapse decimates the United States, the survivors take refuge in seven city-states across the country and establish a totalitarian new regime. Citizens are grouped according to their “lifephase,” all conversations are recorded and stored in “the Vault,” and the country is run by a bloodline of seven senators. When one such senator dies, he bequeaths a sealed letter to his grandson, Zeke Thomas, which could cast doubt on the family’s lineage and prevent him from eventually assuming power. The narrative alternates between Zeke’s story, set in 2143 in a dystopian Texas teeming with political schemers and revolutionaries, and that of his ancestor, Zadock Thomas, set in 1840s Texas. Zadock is a young naturalist who, in order to secure a marriage blessing from his beloved’s father, consents to undertake a dangerous mission for him: delivering a sealed letter to a Kurtz-like Texan general. Despite this urgent imperative, the naturalist redirects his energies and seeks to make a name for himself by documenting the undiscovered species of bats he finds in a vast underground cave. The stories elegantly fit together, but the novel is marred by wooden dialogue and the awkwardly expository nature of the prose (despite being in dire, time-sensitive situations, characters are always willing to recap events or spell out motives). The copious maps, illustrations, and found documents do add some flair, making this volume worth picking up for history and adventure fans. - Publishers Weekly



Science fiction, the Old West, a book within a book, and wide-ranging graphics are among the paraphernalia that festoon this tale of bats, bloodlines, witches, and love played out over two centuries.
In the year 2143, seerlike priestesses control a nourishing liquid and vie with the police for political power in a post-apocalyptic U.S. that comprises seven city-states walled off from the surrounding wasteland. A young man named Zeke Thomas misplaces a letter possibly vital to asserting his bloodline and his future as a senator if he can deal with his envious cousin. His mate is embroiled in the missing letter, her gay father’s unorthodox dealings with the government archives he founded, and a friend’s pregnancy. A problematic epistle and a pregnancy—among numerous other parallels—are at the center of the 1843 narrative, in which the impecunious head of Chicago’s Museum of Flying dispatches his daughter’s suitor, novice naturalist Zadock Thomas, to deliver an important letter to a military figure in Texas. The westward odyssey allows the budding Audubon to sketch animals (shown in two-page spreads) before stumbling into a massive bat cave that may be a portal to the future (and perhaps to a sequel). In Zadock’s long absence, the daughter, Elswyth, must deal with his nasty cousin and her younger sister’s heedless coupling while getting advice from a seerlike aunt. As the author plays with history and fiction, the book within the book (shown literally in pages therefrom) tells some of the 1843 narrative. It is one of two written by Elswyth’s mother, another seer, who also wrote one called The City-State “set far in the future.” Dodson, a book designer, embellishes his debut novel with all manner of textual variations and graphic displays—and slyly has Elswyth say, “The City-State is tiresome to read, Louisa, it has too many devices and made-up words.”
Dodson has produced an unwieldy creature that is generally more fun than tiresome and impressive for the creativity and control he displays with his many disparate elements, if not for the wobbly coherence of the whole. —Kirkus Reviews



As you’d imagine from the title, bats are a key element in Zachary Thomas Dodson’s intricately constructed and elaborately illustrated debut. But the book’s real spirit animal is the ouroboros: a snake eating its own tail. Built as a novel within a novel, with supporting material in the form of letters and journal pages and drawings (all reproduced here as if photocopied from an archive), Bats of the Republic follows a pair of adventurous young men, several generations apart, on similar missions.
The first of these is Zeke Thomas, an heir to a senate seat in the citystate of Texas in the year 2143. The post-disaster world he lives in is strictly controlled, with communities organized around “life phases” in order to facilitate repopulation. Most historical documents were lost in whatever disaster befell the planet, so now there’s a recording-and-archiving system with creepy parallels to the modern world, a nod to the perils of ceding privacy to government in exchange for security. Zeke’s trouble begins with a letter he inherits that was never opened or properly archived—a criminal offense. Will he report it?
Back in 1843, Zadock Thomas—an ancestor to Zeke—also has a problem caused by a mysterious, unopened letter. Zadock works at Chicago’s new Museum of Flying and is in love with the daughter of the museum’s founder. But just as he’s about to propose, his boss sends him on a mission to deliver a letter to a storied general in the embattled republic of Texas. If he doesn’t get back in time—or at all—his beloved will be forced to marry his awful cousin. Naturally, Zadock encounters every possible obstacle, including a cave filled with bats that may or may not be related to the bats that live in the archive of the future world. Will he make it back home?
The stories circle around and fold into each other (in one instance, literally) to delightful and dizzying effect. Dodson is a book designer, and the book is subtitled “an illuminated novel.” The often elaborate design serves the story, underscoring the various narrative voices and timelines, as well as adding visual texture. It’s a pleasure to get lost here, though you might be glad the author includes a few maps. - BookPage
 
“A fantastical adventure that stretches from revolutionary-era Texas to twenty-second-century Texas, is festooned with technical diagrams, animal portraiture, and newspaper clippings that somehow never overwhelm the story.”—Texas Monthly



“A most imaginative book – ambitious in design and presentation … Fans of David Mitchell and Mark Z. Danielewski will rejoice.”—LitHub


Released in May of 2015, director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road grossed $374 million worldwide, an astonishing feat for a film whose predecessor hit theaters thirty years ago. Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy—starring Mel Gibson, between 1979 and 1985—is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia ruled by roadway gangs who battle for the world’s last dregs of petroleum. Fury Road did so well because it’s gorgeously shot and feverishly acted, but also because its central premise still kicks like a Ford Falcon covered in blood and dust.
Inspired by the oil shortages of the 1970s (and the ubiquitous threat of nuclear war), the Mad Max films offer a future in which the environment is dead and civilization has been whittled down to leather, filth, and ranging the desert for food and water. As an Australian, Miller knows that the country’s scorching hot outback has the potential to become a brush-fired wasteland. With the ten hottest years on record having occurred since 1998 (2014 being the worst), drought-ravaged places like California and Sao Paulo, Brazil likewise hint at a precarious future.
The best post-apocalyptic stories succeed in driving our present fears to the Nth degree. They show our values subverted and material gains stripped away. In Bats of the Republic, debut novelist Zachary Thomas Dodson imagines Texas in the year 2143 (as the Silver-City), where nature has fallen to rot, writing implements are outlawed, and all communication is recorded. Also, laudanum is once more the drug of choice.
The wider backdrop is that a worldwide Collapse has destroyed civilization, and the United States is now comprised of seven city-states, each walled off from the outlying dead zones. Perhaps Dodson’s most daring commitment to this Dark Future—and certainly the element that will most rattle progressive readers—is that his city-states are organized by “Lifephase.” This means that the elderly (70 and older) live exclusively in Chicago-Land, teens (14-22) live in Port-Land, and single adults and “Queers” (28-69) live in Atlantas. The map showing these Lifephases—and others reserved for marriage and child rearing—boasts unfamiliar coastlines created by elevated oceans.
Bats of the Republic contains more than a map, however. It’s an illuminated novel, like Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009), and the narrative twines around illustrations, character-specific fonts, and even a shorter novel. Not all readers will care for such intrusions, and some might consider them gimmicky crutches. But Dodson’s illuminations do add an otherworldly filigree to prose that volleys from blunt assessments, like when Historian Henry Bartle says, “After the Collapse, there was very little patience or tolerance for diversity. Folks were scared,” to poetic rambles, as Bartle tells us that
The past is like a tree in the darkest night, filled with black birds rarely seen. Truths that flutter, escaping the edges of peripheral vision. First they are birds lost against a dark sky, then they are simply leaves, blown about by an animating wind. The longer I looked, the more difficult it was to see.
Like all of Dodson’s main characters, Bartle vibrates softly from the page at his own frequency; his chapters are presented as a secret batch of correspondence typed to his daughter, Eliza. She works at the Vault of Records, which is part library and part fascist ops center, where all communication (via speech, paper, and phone) is studied, carbon copied, and threaded together (that her segments come as hand-written notes to her friend, Leeya, is yet more narrative texture). Eliza’s boyfriend, Zeke, is the protagonist of Bats of the Republic and the inheritor of his recently deceased grandfather’s Senate seat. While he decides whether or not to accept the position, Zeke is the Khrysalis. He’s also inherited a sealed letter of questionable value, which he does not immediately turn in to the Vault to be “carbon’d.”
The vastness of Dodson’s novel helps it do what few Dark Future stories can—pull readers slack-jawed to the very end. Details swarm like bats from a cave, then wheel in a hypnotic figure-eight that takes us between Zeke’s life in 2143, and the life of his ancestor, frail naturalist Zadock Thomas, in 1843. Dodson curves details—laudanum addiction, or news of a chupacabra-like beast killing women—from one time-frame into another, reinforcing the temporal quirk; as in novels by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Haruki Murakami (1Q84), coincidence acts with the strength and presence of a speaking character.
To follow one of Bats of the Republic‘s grandest coincidences is to further reveal a nested structure, beginning with Zadock Thomas. Like Victorian science heroes Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, Thomas sets out to catalog new animal species on a life-affirming journey. His more modest trek, however, takes him from Chicago to Texas, where he must deliver a letter to General Irion at the front of the Mexican-American War. He does so at the behest of Joseph Gray, who is striving to establish Chicago’s “Museum of Flying,” a first-class natural history museum. Zadock also hopes to win the heart of Gray’s eldest daughter, Elswyth, who spurs him toward greatness while tepidly acknowledging his existence.
These details take on a chimerical slipperiness when we learn that Zadock travels with Major McMarrow and his soldiers. Legend has it that McMarrow was once so confident of his men that he sat atop his horse and read while battle raged around him. “The musket ball pierced all the pages of his book, coming through the very sentence he was reading, but at such a reduced speed that it bounced harmlessly off his chest.” We never learn the name of the book, but Dodson does include chapters of the Victorian comedy of manners, “The Sisters Gray,” by L.W. Gray. Henry Bartle, in his letters to Eliza, recommends she check it out from the Vault because it seems to feature the Gray family’s exaggerated misadventures, within which there may be grains of truth about Zeke’s bloodline. All the pages from “The Sisters Gray” have circular perforations. And within this book we learn of yet another book, supposedly written by Joseph Gray’s deceased wife, called “The City-State.”
There is every chance that a fictional Möbius strip like Bats of the Republic might present as a clever hunk of paper, pretty on the shelf, jammed full of flaky Complexity. But Dodson’s passion for the real world elevates his fictional one. The take-away from every passage describing Zeke and Eliza’s life, despite the futuristic embellishments, is that they’re prisoners. To travel from the Silver-City to Chicago-Land, Zeke
rode the rotovator up the tether in the center of the city-state. It docked with the tram, which floated in near-earth orbit to the dock above Chicago-Land. He wished he had more laudanum. His palms began to sweat the moment he boarded. He could only think the worst. The statite car might drift into space. The steam thrusters might misfire. The car was attached to nothing. Zeke imagined it falling.
He looked nervously at the landscape painted below. It felt strange to be outside the protective wall of the barrier. The other passengers didn’t seem to mind. In their minds, they had not left the bounds of civilization.
Outside the barrier there were few trees, few lakes, and no buildings. Lots of rot: brown, barren, burning. The storm country was huge. Each trip, Zeke would scan for signs of life. The car was too far from the ground to see anything. Ghost rivers of smoke drifted along the earth’s floor. Some said the land was burning. That there were folks outside, in the rot, setting fires. But nothing could be seen. Not even the flocks of birds Zeke had read about in old books. It was dead and flat as a page of text.
A future where we can’t witness wild animals in their natural environments in horrifying, but it may nevertheless be what we create. Dodson, committed to writing both a novel and a natural history guide, brings animal sketches to audiences who may have never perused a nature book. This is a beautiful thing, and Zadock’s entries for the Museum of Flying and his “Bats of the Republic” compendium ring with tangible wonder:
Cave Bat. Small, brown like the surrounding desert. Body is covered with fur and its face is flat and short and indeed more alike to a human than a mouse. Folds of skin about its ears, no doubt for hearing in the cave, and its wings are formed of the same rubbery dark skin. I thought the wings hairless but, rubbing them between my thumb and forefinger, I could feel tiny follicles. Its wings are not so much formed by its arms as its hands, thin bony fingers providing the frame on which the skin is stretched. Imagine having hands so large that by their downward gesture you could be propelled up into the air! Never have hands been so vital to a creature. To hold this one in mine was a thrill unmatched.
Meanwhile, Dodson arranges complementary plot elements that force the lives of Zeke and Zadock into alignment, pinning them under glass like insects. Bats of the Republic becomes a page-turner just so you can lean back from the sparkling array and make better sense of it. In 2143, Zeke must outmaneuver his loutish Lawman cousin, Bic (who’d love to become Senator), and Major Daxon, a psychopath who runs the Vault. In 1843, Zadock competes with the more rugged Bart Buell for Elswyth’s hand, and must survive Major McMarrow’s idiosyncratic leadership. Both narratives feature a secretive sisterhood of future-reading Auspices, who insist that guiding bloodlines will create a stronger Texas.
The end of Bats of the Republic offers a sealed envelope, a physical echo of the device that generated Zeke and Zadock’s spiral towards each other. Then again, Zadock stroked a bat wing and wrote “Never have hands been so vital to a creature.” That’s worth contemplating as we open the surprise ending. Would Dodson trade the ability to write for the gift of flight? I don’t think a second read will make that any clearer. - Justin Hickey


In Bats of the Republic, the history of a dystopian, alternate United States is pieced together through carefully preserved letters and brief conversations from the present day. This occasionally makes it difficult to determine precisely what is happening. Such a complex world, accompanied by its own history, laws, and system of government might have been better explained to readers in a less disjointed fashion. What readers do learn early on is that the world progressed as normal up until shortly after the presidency of John Tyler, and then it went to hell in a hand basket (everything's always your fault, John Tyler). 
Where Dodson does succeed is in creating a potent and unique aesthetic through his artwork and writing. Apparently, it's customary to bleed into your tea before drinking it, because why not? There's this weird lifephase system where everyone is sent to live in various city states depending on their age and/or sexual orientation. To be honest, I would have liked a little more meat on the dynamics behind why this particular system arose out of the ashes of social collapse. Yes, I know that's the focus of the narrative, but I never could quite buy the answers provided. It's an interesting take on the dystopian tale; a civilization drawn from the meticulous, tweedy hand of naturalists and historians, absolutely everything cataloged and preserved and measured in stages.
The trouble is that the trappings are ornate and fun to look at, but the man behind the curtain is always just out of sight. Carrying a few vials and notebooks doesn't make a scientist in real life any more than it does in fiction, and a bit more research could have gone a long way here. No need to swamp the reader with details on phyletic gradualism or anything, but Zadock could have just as easily been a traveling troubadour as a naturalist for the most part. Also, there are a lot of words thrown in like 'rotovator' and 'phonotube.' Is that just a phone with the name changed, or are there real technological differences based on the divergent path of progress? I wanted to know.
It should also be noted that I don't think a digital advance reader copy of Bats of the Republic adequately presents all that this book has to offer as an illuminated novel. There are maps and diagrams for the reader to explore, rendered in the style of a retro-futuristic natural history museum exhibit. It’s honestly difficult to tell from the digital file, but it seems like a book planned specifically by the author for someone to hold in their hands so that they can fold out maps and trace fingers over textured paper. If it sounds like your cup of genetic blood tea, I would make a definite effort to pick up a physical copy instead of downloading it to an eBook reader. Having the tactile, more interactive experience of turning through Dodson’s beautiful illustrations could very well leave a reader with an entirely different impression of Bats of the Republic than what this reviewer gathered by thumbing through pages on a cold, white screen. - Leah Dearborn



Bats of the Republic is a book that straddles the line between artist book and trade publication. Part epistolary novel, part political drama, part naturalist guide to creatures both real and fantastical, it contains a novel-within-a-novel, pamphlet guides ranging from zip line use to minefield navigation, numerous maps, family trees and technical diagrams. It is as much a collection of objects as it is a single one and in this Bats of The Republic is a story that pushes the boundaries of what narrative can do.
Traditional narrative makes up only a small part of the book’s contents. These passages follow Zeke Thomas as he navigates a political drama set in the year 2143. We also follow the story of Zeke’s relative Zadok in 1843 through letters he writes to his love, Elswyth as he travels a reimagined American West. Elswyth’s own story is described through a novel written some time later and based on her life, being read by a character in the future to try and piece together the past and understand how it shaped the present. Complimenting these three primary narratives are a host of letters, drawings and pieces of ephemera from within the story. The Police State that Zeke inhabits in the future transcribes his telephone conversations and we have access to those transcripts. The narrative on Bats is not so much told by Dodson as it is presented. It’s an experience more than a vision and I was drawn through its mystery not by cliffhanger chapter breaks or Dodson’s concealment of information, but instead by a genuine curiosity brought on by each new piece of information discovered.
I found that I often came to understand new evidence in tandem with the book’s characters. Zadock’s drawings grow increasingly fantastical as his journey through Texas progresses and as they did I wondered if the animals inhabiting this fictional past really were so strange or if they were the products of Zadock’s imagination. Just a few pages later, in a letter Zeke’s would-be father-in-law writes, “There is evidence of insanity in these late letters. Zadock becomes more liberal with the attributes he gifts his fantastical animals.” Much of the narrative is carried out in this way, with me wondering if a piece of information meant what I thought it did, and the characters then making their own interpretations and assertions.
The effect is a story you can never quite trust. It is somehow more true and less clear that a typical narrative. The conclusions proposed aren’t the conclusion Dodson necessarily believes, but are instead the interpretations of characters imbedded within the story. They, like the reader, uncover the mystery of the past in pieces and try to put together a story that makes sense based on what they find. But in the end there is no final authority, no definitive answer, no clean conclusion. There might be one, but it is inaccessible, ever obscured by the rich, contradictory, half-remembered way in which the past makes itself available to us. With the available evidence, we are able to construct a picture of what the fictional past was like, and how it laid the road to the dystopic present, but we will only ever have our belief, never a firm knowledge of cause and effect. Bats of the Republic is a narrative that must be excavated, rather than merely found and there is a pleasure in this. It’s a true mystery, a puzzle, something to mull over and think about in an age of increasing ease of consumption. It’s a long read, though filled with pictures and diagrams, because a simple cover-to-cover examination isn’t enough. I had to go back, re-read, confirm, examine, explore in a way that books rarely demand. Bats of the Republic is a book that requires close attention and it’s well crafted enough to warrant the time.
Not only this, but the book is fun. It’s deeply engaging, complex, and experimental, but in the end it’s simply an enjoyable object to engage with. When I was a kid I typed out letters in gothic typefaces, dyed the paper in tea and burned the edges with my parents’ help. I drew maps and made objects for the players of my Dungeons and Dragons games. I wrote histories from within the settings of my imaginary worlds. I have always had a deep love for fiction that enters the real world, that can be drawn out as much as it draws you in. I have a geeky affection for the artifacts of fictional worlds. Bats of The Republic is this kind of object. It’s a case file, a documentary reader, a collector’s archive. It invites us into its world even as it enters our own. - The Lit Pub



“Zachary Thomas Dodson’s novel Bats of the Republic weaves together a pair of narratives, one historical and one science fictional, along with innovative narrative techniques, impressive illustrations, and nestled narrative elements.”—Vol. 1 Brooklyn












Set in America’s past and future, Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic pieces together the convoluted, time-insecure stories of two young men and those that matter to them (whether or not they realize it). Bridging historical, western, and dystopian SF settings as it moves between storylines, this steampunk cyborg of a novel flits between genre expectations. As it moves among several modes of writing, from love letters to a 19th century novel to bureaucratic conversation transcriptions, its representation on the page shifts to suit the form. Dodson seems to ask: why have we left the pages of books so dry when we can do so much?
Bloodlines and paper trails pull the novel’s threads out from its core: Zachary Thomas himself, who implicitly places himself between Zadock Thomas of 1843 and Zeke Thomas of 2143 both in his naming and moustache flaunting. As all of these personas come together, they seem to encompass the many realities of an individual who feels lost and at home in many times simultaneously. Perhaps because they are so interwoven, the characters themselves do not stand out as particularly vivid or recognizable. If anything, Dodson emphasizes the fuzziness around their edges. Pointing to the way that any character or history is simply a compilation of the words we could find, Bats of the Republic questions how much we will really be made whole by that one missing piece of information. Moreover, it demonstrates how our obsession with one detail blinds us to innumerable others. As Dodson writes along with the copyright information, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locals is entirely coincidental. Any resemblance to other persons or locales within the book should be carefully noted.” Rather than revealing the personal depths of his characters, Dodson elaborates on the proliferating parallels between their lives. I might have loved this book more had I been more attached to its characters as individuals, but I was interested in it because I was not.
The mission to find/deliver a mysterious letter that drives the plot does not encourage the characters to develop in very nuanced ways, giving them a somewhat picaresque feel. Nor does the novel create as many moments of adventure novel style action as one might expect of a historical/sci-fi melding. The constant shifting among characters, narrative styles, and time periods makes it difficult for the characters or the plot to build up nuance and momentum. Instead, like a hipster in a vintage shop, the novel delights in the trappings of these periods.
These limited characterizations, however, are rescued by the enticing visuals of the book itself. Perhaps you shouldn’t choose a book by its cover, but you should definitely choose this book for its pages. One of the most engagingly illustrated and typeset books for adults I have ever encountered, Bats of the Republic deserves a long look. Illuminated with green type and detailing, this book is deeply aware of its textuality. The type sets the tone of the scene. For example, as a character travels through the bat caves, the pages invert to black background with white type. Another passage begins by musing on the disappearing art of writing by hand, penciled more or less between the regularly spaced green lines of notebook paper. The character’s idiosyncratic handwriting in a letter to a friend allows her personality to expand beyond the confinement of size 12 Times New Roman; letters can droop below the lines as thoughts trail into unknown spaces and doodles reminiscent of bat flight patterns foreshadow escapes to come. What would perhaps be too many different storytelling modes without this visual assistance becomes one of the most stimulating aspects of the novel. This graphic novel approach reminds us that we do not only read the words themselves, but also their context, style, and illustrations.
Bats doles out information in tiny morsels, leading readers along a path that is never fully lit and that is only haphazardly guided. A map of the “Republics of the National Alliance” that casually illustrates the loss of the entire Southeastern portion of North America (presumably due to sea level rise) follows dainty sketches of a sparrow. Never making clear what spurs the movement from one overlaid storyline to the other, the novel is fascinatingly overdetermined and under-explained. Occasionally, the story becomes so tangled in on itself that it lacks forward momentum. But, once its covers close, it calls from the shelf, enticing the reader to return with the unlikely hope that all will come clear the next time.
The passion and brilliance of this novel is not in its characters or its plot; it is in the form itself. Lovingly and perhaps obsessively compiled, Bats of the Republic revels in being a physical book. It displays the desperate importance of writing. Dodson’s characters write to escape restrictive societies that are themselves threaded into the perpetually revised storylines by which they know themselves. Through writing, we learn and share who we are. From its beautiful hardcover binding to its secret letter, Bats of the Republic is simply a gorgeous book. Hopefully, Dodson’s will soon be one of many illuminated texts that take advantage of modern publishing houses’ ability to bring the whirling creativity of a writer’s mind into an artful existence. - Emma Schneider




Zachary Thomas Dodson’s debut novel is an easy book to admire, but it’s a tougher one to love. Following in the tradition of postmodernist metallurges of form like Mark Z. Danielewski, he’s fashioned a text that opens up into a variety of structures, playful but precise, with sweeping shifts in typographical format and layout. It evinces a graphophile’s love for the written word, rendered in a series of seemingly mimeographed handmade letters. It shines as an avatar of a different kind of book, even as the heart of the story remains at arm’s length. All the dazzling visual tricks on display serve as armor hiding an undercooked emotional core, the depths of which the author hasn’t quite figured out how to plumb.
Bats Of The Republic: An Illuminated Novel (note that even the subtitle works overtime to set it aside from your “average” book) is one of those outsize novels Sherman Alexie has referred to as “important white guy books”: large stories juggling time and space as they see-saw between far-flung characters dealing with weighty political and philosophical concepts. Starting in 2143, the narrative follows Zeke Thomas, the Texas-residing grandson of an esteemed senator in a government struggling to hold together the remnants of a collapsed civilization. A mysterious sealed letter from his grandfather triggers a mystery in which Zeke, his wife Eliza, and their friends and family all race to protect themselves against nefarious forces in the decaying city-state and solve the riddles of their pasts. Cut to 300 years earlier, where ancestor Zadock Thomas is embarking on a perilous mission to the same Texas landscape, on a mission to deliver a letter of his own, one that may hold the fate of the Texas Republic’s struggle with Mexico and the United States.
Nested between Zadock’s first-person account and Zeke’s third-person storyline lie a barrage of narrative devices, the largest (and most important) being a 19th century novel-within-the-novel, one that may hold the key to Zeke’s lineage. But there are also handwritten letters from Eliza to her friend, transcripts of voice calls recorded by an intrusive and paranoid governmental organization, and maps and illustrations made by the characters as their respective stories play out. All the structural fireworks make for great fun: Happening upon a frayed handwritten note, or a lovingly sketched image of a bat, gives the reader a sense they’re holding a beneficent Pandora’s box, the turn of a page forever releasing unexpected surprises on the other side. Additionally, the alternate-history collapse of America leads to charmingly inventive sources of electricity in Dodson’s world, mostly powered through fantastical steam-engine advancements. Bats Of The Republic feels like nothing so much as steampunk in book form—not the literary technique so much as the actual aesthetic, transmuted into a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption of a novel.
If only the busy story possessed similarly electric prose. At his best, Dodson possesses the soul of a Philip K. Dick disciple, wringing subtle yet charged meditations on identity and society out of a story that traffics in the paranoia of overreaching authority and the breakdown of the social compact. Yet he also seems to have appropriated some of Dick’s worst tendencies, as characters often make arbitrary or incoherent decisions, solely for the purpose of putting them into situations that can propel the narrative where it needs to go. Too often, these people seem less like fully realized beings and more like wind-up figures carrying out marching orders. Dodson fares better with his characters in centuries prior, wielding more fundamental desires—and more relatable personalities.
A sense of alienation plagues all of his characters. This is partly by design—the themes of lost connection and the struggle to understand oneself are essential to the story—but it goes beyond that. Nearly all seem to fall on the more detached side of the emotional-clarity spectrum. In one or several characters, this would be a broadening of the human palette; in everybody, it‘s a weakness of characterization. Luckily, the inventive design makes such an impact, the storylines which curlicue into irrelevance, and the clumsier plot machinations, are more easily dismissed. It’s the kind of book where a late-in-the-game addition of a character who only speaks in hackneyed phrases like, “Those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak,” simply comes across like part of the furniture. By the time actual magic starts appearing, it feels like it should’ve popped up sooner. If Bats Of The Republic shoots for profound spiritual resonance, it can be forgiven for only attaining a heady aesthetic head-trip. - Alex McCown


In a world where the Powers That Be have deemed any and all secrets illegal, Zeke Thomas must go against the flow he’s always followed when he inherits a sealed envelope containing information which could sink the system that’s kept humanity alive since the Collapse. Meanwhile, in the year 1843, Zeke’s time-removed relative, Zadock, has to leave his one true love languishing in her sickbed to deliver a highly sensitive letter to a legendary general embedded deep in the disputed territory of Texas.
An incredibly presented “illuminated novel” which, like last year’s S., blends form and function with history and mystery to realise a reading experience that amazes from the first page, Bats of the Republic comes from the co-founder of a small press specialising in “strange and beautiful fiction and nonfiction” with a sideline in detail-oriented design, so the unusual shape Zachary Thomas Dodson’s debut takes shouldn’t be such a surprise.

And yet, the metatextual elements that make this reflexive narrative remarkable are so utterly abundant that they create a state of fantastic stupefaction. In advance of the actual start of the story, we’re treated to an exquisite endpaper mosaic, two discrete family trees, a meticulous map charting Zadock’s ill-fated flight, a selection of handwritten letters, the first of a few newspaper clippings, and the title page of a whole other novel, namely The City-State by E. Anderson—all of which is as good as guaranteed to make one go um.
And Bats of the Republic has hardly even begun!
Zeke and his partner Eliza are at the centre of The City-State, which takes place in 2143, generations after an environmental apocalypse Anderson (and indeed Dodson) evidences little interest in explaining:
After the Collapse, the country, the whole world, was in chaos. Civilisation was decimated. The records have described those horrors and there is little point in repeating them here. Suffice to say, hanging on to some semblance of order was not easy. The folks in the remaining seven cities were scared. Walls were built to keep marauders out and to protect scarce natural resources. Seven senators were chosen to preside over the nation. Each would pass their seat to a blood relative. In this way blood became political currency.
With the death of his grandfather, one such senator, Zeke is poised to take his promised place in Chicago-Land when he discovers the sealed letter I mentioned in the header. DO NOT OPEN, it declares—as does the facsimile reproduced in the back pages of Bats of the Republic, unopened envelope et al—which Zeke takes as his grandfather’s last wish.
But to knowingly hold a document that hasn’t been copied—or carbon’d, in the parlance of this Orwellian hell—is a crime that could lead to the loss of his seat at least, and somehow, the malevolent Major Daxon has found out about Zeke’s secret.
Just how the malevolent Major came by this knowledge is a question asked in The City-State and answered, interestingly, in the other half of Dodson’s novel: an epistolary affair composed of mysterious notes from a man, Henry Bartle, who introduces himself as Eliza’s absent father, and a series of potentially relevant letters he claims to have come upon whilst digging around in her husband-to-be’s family tree, from Zeke’s ancestor Zadock to his bed-ridden beloved, Elsywth Gray.
“I have discovered one letter missing from the Vault, which is highly unusual,” Bartle puts it, practically in passing, in one of his numerous notes—notes I’d stress he intends to be read after his death. “Its file folder is empty. I have reported it as a missing document to the authorities.”
Bartle refers here to the letter Zadock determines, at the request of his intended’s dad, to deliver to the general in Texas… but might he also mean the letter Zeke, centuries hence, has inherited? Would it be too much of a stretch, then, to suggest that the letter bound into the last chapter of Bats of the Republic is one and the same?
That’s for you to find out, folks. Know this, though:
The letter could be nothing, of course, just a normal correspondence from Joseph Gray. A solicitation for funds or request for specimens. Perhaps even an overblown opinion about the war for Texas. But my instincts tell me otherwise. If the novel is built on some small foundation of truth, then Gray considered this single letter very important. It must have been more than just a convenient way to dispose of Zadock’s interest in his daughter.
A strange and beautiful book which blends fact and fantasy, Bats of the Republic is boundlessly brilliant in its errata. Had Dodson told its tale straight, however, I’m not sure I would so readily recommend it.
The narrative is complex, yes, but quantity is not quality, and when you peel away its exceptional presentation, much of what remains is mundane, which is to say peculiarly plain. This isn’t an issue in and of itself, yet the absence of incident leaves a lot of the heavy lifting to Dodson’s cast of characters, and alas, they’re a mixed bag. Zeke, for instance, rarely felt three dimensional to me, and The City-State‘s supporting players—chief among them Henry Bartle and Major Daxon—are at best sketched. Eliza alone is deftly drawn, but Dodson doesn’t give her a great deal to do.
Happily, the other half of the whole fares far better. “Despite his failures, [Zadock] is a more fascinating character than many men who accomplished much more,” and his eventual descent into what some might call madness—when the man’s “mental state must be called seriously into question”—is rendered with restraint and real feeling.
At times, if the truth be told, the experience of reading Bats of the Republic left me as frustrated as Henry Bartle during his search for the missing sections of Zadock’s story:
I feel I am sifting through useless details. There are gaps. I cannot profess that any artifact is more important than any other. Contradictions are inevitable. The more research available, the clearer the landscape of the past becomes. But detail begets complexity. And the truth becomes obscured.
Bats of the Republic is indubitably a better book because of the time invested in its extraordinary design than it would be without, but don’t be so quick to dismiss Zachary Thomas Dodson’s novel as gimmickry, for in the final summation, its form is its function—and that’s fine. - Niall Alexander 


Pick up “Bats of the Republic” and — even before you start reading — you’re instantly transfixed. The author, Zachary Thomas Dodson, is a book designer who co-founded Featherproof Books out of Chicago, and his debut novel is a glorious demonstration of what old-fashioned paper can still do in the hands of a creative genius.
Stuffed into this illuminated novel are books within books, including a facsimile of a 19th-century novel, complete with tissue-covered plates and a wormhole piercing every page. The dust jacket has two sides, the lining printed in reverse. The whole steampunk apparatus is chockablock with foldout maps, torn telegrams, bits of newspaper articles, drawings of bats and other real and imagined creatures, diagrams of “steammoats” and other inventions, and, most fun of all, an actual envelope with the cryptic instruction “Do Not Open.” (Resist!) These beautifully designed elements not only add depth and detail to the story, but they also instruct the reader on how to move through the book.
In addition to all its visual excitement, “Bats of the Republic” tells two intertwined and echoing stories. One is set in 1843 in Chicago’s Museum of Flying. Young naturalist Zadock Thomas is in love with his boss’s daughter, Elswyth Gray. To win her hand, he must deliver a secret letter from his boss to a mysterious general in the Republic of Texas. Through a series of letters to his beloved, Zadock recounts his journey into a strange land that turns stranger with each step. Just as his situation becomes most dire, he stumbles across a cloud of bats and a vast cave that threatens his mission and provides an opportunity for him to make a name for himself. He decides he will create a field guide called “Bats of the Republic” to impress his prospective father-in-law and help keep the rickety Museum of Flying aloft. Juxtaposed against his letters home is a novel called “The Sisters Gray,” which purports to be a lightly fictionalized account of what is happening in Chicago while Zadock is on the trail.
The second story is drawn from a novel called “The City-State,” written by Elswyth’s mother. It’s set 300 years later in the new Republic of Texas, one of seven such walled districts left behind after an apocalypse. In this dystopian future, the government is watching, listening and recording everything. All written correspondence is forbidden. Documents from the past must be “carbon’d” and the copies sent to the Vault of Records. A character named Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope inscribed with the warning “Do Not Open” from his grandfather, a senator from Chicago-land. Zeke’s wife, Eliza, who works in the Vault, fears the consequences of the illegal letter, and she sets in motion a series of events that leads to calamity. Only by rebelling against the government can Zeke reclaim his freedom. Spreading like an umbrella over both stories are letters from Eliza’s father, relating the true history from 1840s Texas to Eliza in the 2140s, until the “real” and the “fictional” merge.
Then things get complicated.
As bats use sonar, these stories echo in meaningful ways. Events that happen in one story are anticipated in the others. Eventually, the method worms its way through. Stories are told side by side on facing pages (white ink on black backgrounds); transcribed conversations are run in parallel columns. The whole reading experience becomes disorienting and dizzying as the past and the future converge in a kind of infinite loop — or the seemingly crazy paths of bats in flight.
“Bats of the Republic” cumulatively becomes a book about the way books are made and the way stories work. Novels, Dodson suggests, are contraptions, jury-rigged together with parts of other novels, archived letters, remembered conversations, maps, scraps of info, imagined journeys, and creatures real and strange. Archetypes of the cowboy story, tropes drawn from sci fi, love letters, diaries, confessions all abound in this relentlessly engaging tale. Dodson has quite brilliantly exposed the gears and cogs whirring in the novelist’s imagination. It is a mad and beautiful thing. - Keith Donohue


In this age of digitization, the act of holding a book in your hands appears to have faded into a forgotten luxury. Leafing through the fresh-cut pages of a new novel, scrawling notes in margins that can’t be erased with a simple ctrl-z, the muted thud of a completed paperback dropped to the floor as digestion begins. Although the advent of e-books has ushered portability and convenience into the home library, that proliferation of pdfs has endangered those satisfactions unique to paper and pen. From this technological turbulence has emerged the illuminated novel—-a book that takes a conventional plot as its centerpiece and then decorates it with postcards, leaflets and other addenda. Printed, drawn or wedged into the pages, these inserts become critical appendages of the story and transform books, such as J.J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s collaboration S. and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, into odes to the physical.
With Bats of the Republic, Zachary Thomas Dodson makes his bold entrance into this intriguing genre. Dodson, who co-founded the independent publishing company Featherproof Books and has designed a number of releases under that flagship, spares no effort in his hyper-ambitious first novel. Parallel storylines convolve in a 19th-century Republic of Texas with a dystopian American future. The two threads twist and tangle, creating a whirlpool of events in which time gets lost and readers struggle to discern which, if either, of the two worlds really exists. Amidst this confusion, Dodson sprinkles dozens of hand-drawn illustrations, page prints from a fake 19th-century novel and a sealed envelope whose contents become the maypole that both stories dance around. An incredible attention to detail marks all of these illuminations, but the book’s lofty design fails to overcome the unleveled pacing and lack of suspense that hollow out the story within its beautiful shell.
The first of Bats of the Republic’s two plotlines follows naturalist Zadock Thomas as he journeys into a Republic of Texas embroiled in its violent struggle for independence. His quest: to deliver a mysterious letter to the enigmatic General Irion. Dodson’s primary source for Zadock’s tale comes through the letters Zadock pens to his beloved Elswyth, whom he hopes to wed upon his return to Chicago. As a testament to the book’s overwhelmingly detailed design, Dodson renders Zadock’s handwriting in these notes with ink mixed according to a mid-19th century receipt. Excerpts from the novel-within-a-novel The Sisters Gray complement these letters, serving as the reader’s periscope into the domestic drama unfolding in Chicago while Zadock treks towards Texas.
Three hundred years in the future, America has collapsed into seven city-states where a rigid social structure keeps an endangered human population afloat. In this steampunk dystopia, secrets are forbidden, and Zeke Thomas has just inherited a sealed envelope whose contents are unknown to both Zeke and the government’s omniscient archivists. Henry Bartle, one such archivist and the estranged father of Zeke’s fiancée Eliza, attempts to map Zeke’s influential bloodline as a gift to his daughter. In doing so, he stumbles across Zadock’s letters to Elswyth and an archived copy of The Sisters Gray, casting doubt upon the lineage that would make Zeke a senator. Dodson narrates this dystopian future through a collection of private letters, transcripts recorded by government eavesdroppers and, most confusingly, through the science fiction novel The City-State written 300 years ago by Elswyth’s precognizant mother. This duality of the novel-within-a-novel concept obscures the relationship between the past and the future, creating what eventually becomes one of the book’s most fascinating mysteries.
From these dueling threads, the novel erupts into an enjoyable adventure tale that oscillates between exciting and frustrating, ultimately landing somewhere in the middle. The plot revolves around Zeke’s indecision to open a letter whose contents, like Chekov’s rifle, inevitably must be revealed. Crippled by his brooding temperament, Zeke floats from page to page waiting for events to unfold, making him more of an observer than an engaging protagonist. The book moves forward without him, though, driven by the interplay amongst the many narrators.
Dodson struggles to juggle this ambitious multi-threaded storyline, however, as different perspectives often interfere with each other to negate suspense before it has ripened. Early in the novel, for instance, Zeke loses his grandfather’s letter, creating a tension that could elevate his story to something more than just waiting. This excitement crumbles only three pages of text later when another narrator’s private note reveals the letter’s location. With one protagonist rendered impotent by indecision and a tendency towards self-defusing suspense, the stumbling plot finds some measure of salvation in Zadock’s heartwarming attempts to balance his duties to Elswyth, her father and his naturalist’s passion for bats. Dodson renders this 19th-century drama with a much more convincing hand, creating a believable and heartfelt romance that redeems much of Zeke’s post-apocalyptic ennui.
On a more concrete note, Bats of the Republic lapses into hollow and unnatural prose with a disappointing regularity. Dodson himself seems aware of this shortcoming. In a tongue-in-cheek moment of self-awareness, Bartle refers to The Sisters Gray as a “flimsy and melodramatic” story that is “overwrought, gossipy, preoccupied with social norms and dripping with overelaborate illustrations.” Peeking around the fourth wall, this off-hand criticism of Dodson’s novel-within-a-novel could be applied equally well to portions of Bats of the Republic.
In fairness, the quantity of awkward prose is on par for a first time novelist, and Dodson also appears to be aware of where his true strength lies. He follows his criticisms of The Sisters Gray by describing Elswyth’s father’s preference for novels of the finest workmanship: “If a book is crafted unconvincingly we would refuse to read it on grounds of aesthetics.” Dodson has undoubtedly crafted his novel with the utmost care, and its ornate trappings go a long way towards distracting from the stilted writing.
In Bats of the Republic, Zachary Thomas Dodson has created a Möbius strip of a novel. Like a Möbius strip, however, the story never truly goes anywhere and leaves only the vague sense that something has occured. Artfully designed and enthusiastically conceived, Bats of the Republic demonstrates Dodson’s visionary ambition, but clumsy missteps leave the rookie author lost in the complex maze of his own making. Nevertheless, the novel remains a work of beauty. Full page sketches of buildings and animals, handwritten love notes, pamphlets and maps create a consuming, if confusing, world for Dodson’s characters. Bats of the Republic may lack a well-rounded plot, but Dodson’s talent as a designer shines through to create an impressive first entry into the illuminated novel genre. - Evan MacQuarrie


A novel’s just been released that must rank as one of the strangest to come out of Texas. It’s called ‘Bats of the Republic,’ and it offers both an alternative history of the state and a steam-punk-like future. And that’s just the start of how unusual it is. KERA’s Jerome Weeks talked with Texas novelist Zachary Thomas Dodson — in his new home, Finland.
Listen to Krys Boyd interview Zachary Dodson today on Think. Zachary Dodson will read from ‘Bats of the Republic’ at the Wild Detectives bookstore Oct. 19th, 7 p.m.
Calling ‘Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel’ one of the strangest books to come from Texas is a strong claim, considering this state has produced both Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling. But Zachary Thomas Dodson’s novel is unusual not just for its story or the alternative Texas that Dodson has invented for it.
‘Bats’ is pretty elaborate and unusual as a book, as a printed product. Keith Donohue is a novelist, author of ‘The Boy Who Drew Monsters.’ He reviewed ‘Bats’ for ‘The Washington Post.’
“I mean, it’s filled with different objects that you don’t normally find in a book,” he says. “There are books inside books. There are facsimile charts and maps of places real and imagined. There are newspaper clippings, telegrams, hand-written letters. The dust jacket is reversible. And there are bats,” he adds with a laugh.
With all this – plus a sealed letter included inside — it’s almost as if Dodson set out to demonstrate what ink and paper could do that digital books might not. And we haven’t even mentioned the new punctuation he invented or the different-colored inks. Perhaps ‘Bats’ should be considered the ‘anti-Kindle’ (although there actually is a Kindle version).
But Dodson declares, “I’m not anti-Kindle and I’m not anti-e-book. I think those things have enormous possibilities. But I don’t think all the possibility is gone from print books, either. So I don’t think we’re done with the book as a form.”
He prefers the term “maximalist” — he tries to include everything printed literature can do, in contrast to our contemporary preference for spare, sleek, supremely minimalist design in everything from Apple computers to dinner entrees. It shouldn’t come as a surprise Dodson is a graphic designer. He hand-drew all of the maps, letters and animal sketches in ‘Bats of the Republic.’
Dodson grew up in El Paso, went to UT-Austin where he studied humanities (“a catch-all term for uselessness and not really helpful when I wanted to find a job” — but he did find mythology fascinating). Then he studied graphic design instead and ended up in Chicago, designing magazines.
Ten years ago, Dodson and his book-editor friend Jonathan Messinger started featherproof books, an independent press that still exists. The idea was to publish some of the many authors they’d met in the Chicago literary scene, the ones that interested them, plus the two had also been writing books themselves. So it helped to have your own publishing house when, as Dodson admits, his first novel probably should never have been published in the first place.
With featherproof, Messinger edited while Dodson designed, and that’s when he really started thinking about how books are built, how they can work in terms of what he calls “visual narrative.”
“I became more and more interested in book design the more and more that I did it,” he says. “And more interested in how design could really become part of the story rather than just a miniature advertisement for the book on the cover.”
It also took leaving Texas for Dodson to appreciate his home state’s quirks and strange, special character (we’ll use those euphemisms). He learned other states don’t teach their state history the way Texas does – with two full years of classes in grade school. Texas is a state more or less full of mandated Texas history buffs.
“I realized I knew all this stuff about Texas that other people didn’t know about” — in other words, not just the familiar legends of the Alamo or the cattle drives. It also helped that Dodson’s a fifth-generation Texan, so he also drew a little bit on family lore when he started writing ‘Bats’ seven years ago. Which is perhaps why he’s not fazed at all when his novel is described as strange: “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he says happily. “Texas is a strange place.”
Half of ‘Bats’ is set in 1843, when a young naturalist named Zadock Thomas sets out from Chicago to win the hand of his boss’s daughter by going to Texas to deliver a sealed, secret letter to a mysterious general. (Zadock’s a naturalist, so he sketches the animals he encounters along the way. The pictures are included in the book, of course. The title, ‘Bats of the Republic’ is meant to echo Audubon’s ‘Birds of America.)
The other half of the novel happens 300 years later, when Texas is one of seven, walled city-states, the only territories remaining after an unspecified disaster. In this new, highly repressive Texas, tall watch towers keep everyone under surveillance, people are armed with “steam sabers,” communication is done via pneumatic tubes and printed documents are controlled entirely by the official state vault.
And wouldn’t you know it – that old secret letter comes back.
This oddball dystopia — especially the complete lack of electrical devices — sounds more than a little steam-punky. But Dodson shies away from the term because he wasn’t all that interested in molding and explaining an entire world. “It winks at steam punk,” he insists.
‘Bats’ may well bewilder readers with its many family trees and diagrams — and it doesn’t help that Zadock Thomas and his future counterpart Zeke Thomas not only sound alike, they’re rather similar in their passive natures. But critic Keith Donohue argues the novel is about the different ways history and stories are told, and the book’s diagrams and print devices are not just graphic frippery; they’re very much a part of the story-telling method.
“I think it makes you slow down and look at how a story works in a completely different way,” Donohue says.
A year ago, out of something like a Texas spirit of adventure, Dodson and his wife up and moved to  Helsinki, Finland — where he teaches graphic design at an art school, Aalto University. He’s the only Texan around, he says, making him something of a local, interesting “character,” even though his classes, which are taught in English, are actually very multi-national, with students from Brazil, Japan, Slovenia, Iraq and elsewhere.
Finland is extremely different from Texas; geographically, it’s almost as far away as you can get from Texas in the northern hemisphere. But it’s not the cold that’s odd, Dodson says (he’s lived in Chicago, after all). It’s the darkness he finds unsettling, with only four hours of sunlight a day in December.
Yet he’s also found the cliche image of the typical Finn echoes that of the Texas cowboy. “All Finns are the tough-as-leather, silent type,” he says. “I shouldn’t stereotype, but just like that’s the received stereotype of the cowboy, the Finns are quiet, they’re serious and they get the job done. And they like to ride horses, which you wouldn’t expect.”
So sure enough, Dodson is now fascinated by that country’s history and legends: “I’m reading a lot of Finnish mythology,” he says. “I’m reading a lot about moon bases, about pyramids. These are the things I’m making notes on now.”
So — a future novel about pyramid-shaped, Finnish moon bases. That might just be more unusual than ‘Bats of the Republic.’ - Jerome Weeks




Aashish Kaul - The precisely realized yet dreamlike settings of Aashish Kaul's stories, the fastidious, melancholy sensibility of their no-longer-young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism, of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov




Aashish Kaul, The Queen's Play, Roundfire Books, 2015.
read it at Google Books


In ​the second age of the world, a time of prehistory, a time of myth, Mandodari, queen of the demon king Ravana, invents chess to carve out a role for herself in a world where male, martial virtues are paramount. As a chess player, she can play at warfare; as queen, she can be the most potent warrior on the battlefield. The ​Queen's Play attempts to ​write the origin of chess into the narrative​ cycles​ of ​the​ Ramayana, one of the two formative epics of ancient India.​The cursory mention ​of a chess-like game in the Ramayana lore ​offer​s​ interesting parallels and openings between the game and the themes of the epic poem. ​At the centre of it is a queen​, ​first entering and then growing from strength to strength to become the most powerful piece on the board, ​inventing a game which closely parallels the epic battle taking place not far from the royal palace, a battle which she is not permitted to join, a battle where she will lose her king. Foregrounding certain episodes from the vast tapestry of the epic, the novel develops new narrative variations​ that feed back into the classical text with freshly imagined material​.​


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Aashish Kaul, A Dream of Horses & Other Stories, Roundfire Books, 2014.


The stories in this collection draw variously on the themes of love and loss, Taoist metaphors, socio-political concerns, and the writer's place and role in the world. Literary and complex yet accessible and fast-paced, each story differs widely in style, motivation, philosophy, and denouement from all the others. The collection encompasses topographies and places from China to France, and Ireland to India.


Kaul has done a very necessary thing in A Dream of Horses, which is to mount a passionate and sensual defense of what literature can do for us explorers of the abyss in these anti-literate, imagistic times. He has [. . .] penned a very sensitive and intricate investigation of the literary sensibility. ~ Scott Esposito (from the introduction)

Kaul is a poet of space and silences, of absence and dream, a journeyman through text and the fictional experience. The lived is translated into the contemplated and is created in a brushstroke - such is the condition of the artist. His stories are like the Oneirocritica on the modernist urge and method, the dream of a dreamer who is aware of his dream. . . . This is an admirable first collection that may become a singularity to Kaul's later work. Kaul has crafted seven seductive, necessarily orphic stories that linger like the taste of pomegranates. - Christopher Cyrill

Involvement as a reader in this book is a major appeal, as it offers opportunities to engage the intellect profoundly, not in solving a Mystery's puzzle, but as dialogue pushing the edges of literary innovation. This book moves the literary canon forward. - Literary Orphans Journal

The precisely realized yet dreamlike settings of Aashish Kaul's stories, the fastidious, melancholy sensibility of their no-longer-young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism, of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov. - J.M. Coetzee



Kaul has done a very necessary thing in A Dream of Horses, which is to mount a passionate and sensual defense of what literature can do for us explorers of the abyss in these anti-literate, imagistic times. He has not done it in the common way but rather in the best possible. Without drawing a circle between those who find their eyes brightened by the printed word and all the rest of humanity, without fetishizing books and the lifestyle that accompanies them, and, above all, without dwelling on that singularly boring individual known as the author, he has nonetheless penned a very sensitive and intricate investigation of the literary sensibility. - Scott Esposito (from the Introduction)

While the description on the back of the book by Aashish Kaul says “each story differs widely in style, motivation, philosophy, and denouement,” the book, which is due out the end of May from Roundfire Books, contains a coherent focus on movement and meta-movement through space, and the voice is consistent. I would even go so far as to say it reads something like a novel about one protagonist moving through space in a way that becomes cumulatively meaningful.
Normally, writers carefully avoid the taboo of writing about authors, and dreams, especially stories that end with awakening. Many readers might not like this book because that’s exactly what it’s about. As his story “Tahiti” claims: “Dream and reality are but different chapters of the same book. Wasn’t it Schopenhauer who said so? That book through which at times you drift serenely, while at other times, you tramp with thoughts tied to your step like large, prehistoric stones closes one day. Then, as one chapter merges into the other, loses its distinctiveness, you begin to see the true, enduring wisdom of its words.” However, both of these subjects are fully embraced in New Wave Fabulism and this book has all the components of that genre. New Wave Fabulism tropes include writing self-consciously about the stories we tell ourselves, which as humans, we often get wrong, and turn into mythos. Characters can only interpret the strangeness of life subjectively, and we can remain uncertain about what really happened, and if there even is such a thing as objective mundane truth. This genre, which straddles Literary Realism and Fantasy, has been running wild between the fences for a long time. Taming it has always been difficult; many are afraid of it because it refuses the whip.
New Wave Fabulism is often self-aware meta-fiction that involves the reader directly, “trying to forge a link between dream and reality.” A pipe is not a pipe. The narrator addresses this directly:”A book is an enigma. Words the fill its pages present a shifty, relative universe. Through a reader, they create constructs where the past attempts to meet the future, the present arranging the meeting. In this present, as the reader receives and breaks apart the text — revives the past, contemplates the future — he, unknowingly, merges the two and makes the present fluid, expansive, eternal: he defeats time. But the author waits for the reader in the heart of his labyrinth. Should one go in search of the other? And how?” Involvement as a reader in this book is a major appeal, as it offers opportunities to engage the intellect profoundly, not in solving a Mystery’s puzzle, but as dialogue pushing the edges of literary innovation. This book moves the literary canon forward.
The miraculous, fantastical things that occur relate often to space, because that’s what constitutes the context. “”A voice imploring her to pass through a magic curtain. From Amsterdam to Paris in three steps!” Dream of Horses’ persistent focus on location and the details of perspective and movement are reminiscent of Nouveau Roman. As in books by Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, the physicality of the world is important for its own sake. Many times in Dream of Horses, seemingly random tangential paragraphs describe the protagonist going here and there, going for a walk, seeing the landscape around him, not in service of a tight plot moving forward, but because space takes priority. ” Before a month had passed, I had walked all the trails in all the mountains, I had discovered a tarn in the hills behind the settlement, I had stared at the heights. At other times, I would descend into a valley, where not infrequently I found a hamlet adjoining which men tilled small blocks of land, one below the other, that appeared to descend straight into the heart of the earth. People lived in such hamlets frugally, content with their routine lives. The strong sun had browned their faces and shoulders, but their gaze reflected serenity of mind, having arrested life in its threadbare yet lovable form which the mountains had shielded for ages.”
A walking narrator is refreshing in this age which is addicted to car chases. The details of traversing locations are as highlighted as characterization, and sometimes become successful substitutes for plot. I find this a fascinating technique, different enough not to be derivative of the phenomenology inherent in Nouveau Roman style fiction. The spatial elements easily can be read as dream symbols for the psyche, though that interpretation remains subtle. “Unlike in life, mountains always propel me to chose the course that moves upwards. Thus I instinctively selected the narrow path rising past young twisted pines and shrubs whose names I did not know, when it was apparent that the wider, flatter, oft-trodden road I had left behind was the correct way.”
Spatial locations both conscious and unconscious, symbolic and real, mesh to create wondrous experiences that are inherently meaningful by the nature of interacting with landscape directly, taking it seriously as itself,, not as a backdrop for the important stuff. “The notes grow prominent and I realize with a slight jolt that I am already in the forest, lured by the melody. At first the notes are space out like droplets, but soon they rise and merge into a river of hope and longing. Unbeknownst to me, I have made the choice. Now all that remains is to walk the path to its end. Fortunately, the moonshine filters through the overhanging branches, and I have followed this path many times in the day. Still, I cannot make out at once when I hit the fork.” The fork becomes as elaborately important as you might imagine.

Though this book honors the non-human and strives to give it its due, it is easily accessible by the human heart. Some themes that could resonate with any of us include the deeper meanings of musical rhythm, circular and twisted time, the way we create our environments that are so highly individualized they resemble dreams that transform us, and how our lives happen as they do because of the random turns we make as we walk along on our way to get something to eat or look at the sunset rather than being obsessed with a MacGuffin, the touchingly profound and intense intersections between us all (She is already inside me, she is me.”), and the quest (“Unaware of the tears clouding his vision, the archer saw stretching before him a narrow path at whose end was the rose”). Some other themes involve the absurd, and how what we desire rarely happens, as well as the non-linear reality of our lives that is different from traditional narrative structure. We find in these pages ponderings on the relationship between objects and people and how our perceptions transform them in our minds, and the complexity of our relationship with symbols: “With horror I understand that I am losing my way in a labyrinth of symbols, where everything is a symbol for everything else, a web that may hold me prisoner forever.”The aggressive role of the imagination is carefully tracked: “While writing one day, an image grew on the page.”
The language is riveting: “Slowly the world, like a ball, pushed into a dark corner, seemed to roll about us into the night.” It might even be too poetic for hardcore genre readers, though the narrative extends beyond the realism that has become associated with Literary Fiction. The prioritizing of the relation to spatiality, the few ungrammatical usages of words, tense changes, and punctuation issues, as well as the self-conscious subject of waking up and narration, might bother some readers. “When I awake, she is in the balcony, silhouetted against those facades, each a twin of the other. When she turns to look at me, the rays break into smithereens at her shoulder. We went to Montparnasse to eat in a restaurant located in an alley off Boulevard Raspail. The sun did not reach into it and the shade emphasized the shade above.” However, I can completely recommend this book to adventuresome readers who like to walk along with the narrator and observe not only his actions, but participate in them conceptually and look around appreciating the landscape on that walk.
The cover photos and the brilliant introduction by Scott Esposito complete this beautiful book. Roundfire Books has done us a great service by putting out this collection. I feel changed by it, woven into it, in admiration of it: “I tell her that art has a precise function. To offer a glimpse of what it is to be. Every artist, every poet knows this. All his attempts are to catch, if only fleetingly, a pure image, or even a shimmer of it. But alas — this isn’t an easy task — not by a long shot. Only art that is playful can begin to move towards this end, content that it is to simply flirt with life, not arrest it.” Bravo. - Tantra Bensko









Aashish Kaul: Sense and sensibility: on literary taste

Justin Limoli - a perfect example of a Poets Theater recent subgenre, Poetics Theater.Nevertheless, Limoli’s play bleeds out from the context of this genre, only to reanimate beyond all genre, as a work of art, irreducible

Bloodletting in Minor Scales Cover



Justin Limoli, Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms.]. Plays Inverse, 2015.      Preview


A mother attempts suicide and fails. Life goes on, but as her family picks up the pieces, gratitude mixes with sadness & anger at the attempted departure. In this dream-like play in verse, blood becomes a character, hearts are fed to the stage, and Dialogue delivers a monologue as Justin tries to determine whether he can truly forgive or forget what has been done.


"What a gorgeous, intense, original work. As the feral offspring of Samuel Beckett and Jack Spicer, and as his glorious, sincerely hilarious self, Justin Limoli navigates territories of love, family, and survival, and approaches the realms of verse and drama (tender, wise, absurd) with his powerful first book, Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms.]. This book is pivotal, a suspenseful exploitation of a single life-changing event and the surprises that hide in the psyche. It is as much about inventing form as abiding it, as much about healing as performance. It is a remarkable narrative of perception presented in fractals. The verse play as we've known it is done." - Maureen Seaton
     

An intricate knife puzzle of words and ideas, as seen through a shattered syntax mirror. One thinks of the painting by James Ensor entitled Masks Fighting Over a Hanged Man."  - Kris Saknussemm     

"The language is rich and rousing, with echoes of the convoluted closet drama of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Arthur Kopit, and the French surrealists, and its picture of a boy beset by his mother trying to kill herself of course brings echoes of Long Day's Journey into Night or Tiny Alice—or earlier, pre-modernist plays of the classical era. Justin Limoli writes dialogue fresh as country air, and yet it is the dark, nightmarish, and precise atmosphere he can conjure up with a single noun, like 'copper,' that you will come out of the theater remembering." - Kevin Killian


"I read Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms.] and I re-read it. I do not know what to do with this book. Take it in or refuse it? Either way, reading is happening. Thus, this is extreme poetry—it faces and evades, creating a scaffold in the tradition of poets theater around a narrative '...more like sifting when you try to hold it.' A failed suicide, a mother who is beloved, difficult rooms, details that most would prefer to shun. Blood knife anger forgiveness and back again. Justin Limoli writes it all. What is poetry for? This. Admit that life is staged via language and we are all murmuring, teetering at the edge of a drama begging to be redacted. Such power from book-sized pages, and as I open, agreeing to read on and again, the lyric pulls me back from a precipice called 'impossible.' Such wide-angel I mean wide-angle beauty." - Jill Magi


Justin, the playwright’s first name as a character in his own play, and Blood, declaring itself “the bleeding finite,” discuss the beginnings.
Blood: Yes, and all beginnings need victims.
Justin: I didn’t want this.
Some works of art are their own beginnings (and ends); and these works start something in and of themselves, in the sense of being a start in the world. Such acts of initiation are neither simple, nor straightforward, nor victimless (starting with the artist him or herself first and foremost), nor a matter of intent, nor control. The force of the work creates its own form. The force of the work — its need, its passion or anguish, its vitality or rage against death, against oblivion — makes it its own thing, its own genre, sui generis.  But to use words such as “unique,” “innovative,” and “original” risks the hyperbole attending any sui generis claims, since there are no vacuums in the world of art or forms. The world works into all works. It is the ingrate’s arrogance to neglect the influence of culture and precursors (though more than any other, the sui generis work creates its own precursors, as Jorge Luis Borges would say: the brilliance of a surprising configuration illuminates forerunners from a new angle, casting back their shadows). Still, in complete acknowledgement of genres and handed-down forms, sometimes an urgency presses through it all, and becomes transformative. Conscious or not, in the imperative of the creative force, the artist of a sui generis work produces on her or his own terms, and by internal necessity comes to terms with what the work presses through.
The book of Justin Limoli’s play, Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms.], is such a work — there’s nothing like it and yet it’s recognizable immediately as a poet’s lyric keening. Sensitive, discerning, and heart-scarred, the book’s author refuses to let go his desperate loving hold on a harrowing event: his mother’s attempted suicide. The narrative is shattering. Its contents cleave through Denial. An anguished why? busts apart the multiplicity of forms constituting the work: prose, drama, and poetry (and the poetry itself enters the drama in a variety of poetic forms) — and though the question is rhetorical, the anguish is an earnest power. This power bleeds teardrops from wounds, opens roses of Limoli’s poetic prose such as in the following impossible stage direction:
[Mom impales her left wrist with a swooning cleaver, a chandelier of Blood enters through her, and Justin is left. He plants his unsoiled tongue into his chest, so that it may pollinate with his heart. Mom is dragged offstage and thrown into the inner ribs of Mental Ward to recuperate.]
On one level, this sui generis work is actually of genre, implicated and categorizable as Poets Theater, or Verse Play, with traditions ancient and modern (U.S. poets’ approach to theater along identifiable lines and practices has a seventy year history at this point, cf. The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985). More, Bloodletting could be considered a perfect example of a Poets Theater recent subgenre, Poetics Theater. As structurally divergent from mainstream American drama as you can get, Poetics Theater provides an artistically flexible, informed, and free-form experimental “space” (whether for the stage or in thought) conducive to the achievement of heightened poetic presence through performance, one of the few ancient elements of live theater left to its sole purview. Nevertheless, Limoli’s play bleeds out from the context of this genre, only to reanimate beyond all genre, as a work of art, irreducible. Plus, as hybrid as Poets Theater and Poetics Theater already are, the book enters into further cross-disciplinary engagements — indicated by the diction of music in the title and, suggested in the subtitle, painting, along with (by “in Arms”) a hint of military art, of struggle and battle — to emerge a luxuriant, hauntingly beautiful, strange and brutal chimera, real as torment.
Justin: [In a syncopated off-meter.]
My name is Justin
and my mother
slit her wrist
with a cleaver
Plays Inverse is just the publisher for Limoli’s Bloodletting in Minor Scales, a small press based in Pittsburgh (and now New York), with its focus on Poetics Theater-inflected Poets Theater. Publisher Tyler Crumrine dedicates his press to honoring the book of the play as much more than a mere script and handbook for staging: the text stands, the work exists, with or without production, and the play as written and read is as much to the purpose as the play performed. At this point, I can’t imagine the art of the play detached from the art of the book, can’t imagine it without the cover image (by Dave Watt) as a colossal backdrop canvas: curtains of brushstrokes in brown and black, the face of a woman with a side-parted bob (but only her ears and one tourmaline blue eye, sorrowful and wounded, are actual human features, for this is a stitched together face, with a mask covering mouth and chin, a chair in the place of her nose, and a patch of a perfect circle of blood-red paint like a wax seal in place of the other eye, thickness of a coat button), a knobby purple robe with lustrous globs of blood on the indent in front of her shoulder, and her arm crossed in front of her — again, the “in Arms” of the subtitle throwing multiple meanings, the text there in parallel above the prominent baring of her arm, the mother’s arm, with robe sleeve falling back — wrist gashed and dripping, but its bend as of the most lovely of gestures, a dancer’s poise of fingers and hands, held in tree limb stillness, the slight twist of a delicate branch.
The beginning of Bloodletting repeats, because trauma is an endless loop in real life; in the phantasmagoria of the play, attempted suicide is the carousel of a carnival nightmare. The organ breaks down and mechanics go haywire and yet scenes and songs and poems revolve in garish display. Headings function dually as scene titles in the acts of the play and as poem titles as if for a collection of poems: “Mother, as a swelling word”; “Maternal Red blossoms Petaled”; “Mother, as a spilling”; “Suicide repeats Ulysses”; and the heartbreakingly wry, “I can’t give this a name.” Limoli’s lush prose has me thinking of bleeding flowers and wounds, eyes looking back from scars, and indeed there’s a bit of that actually there in the text (“blossoms where your wrists were”), but I realize I’m tending too much the mirage of a hanging garden amidst a violent, turbulent domain; I’m lingering with the knowledge — and it’s good to know — that this young poet from Hawaii, whose mother hacked her wrist with a meat cleaver, works a day job with bonsais and orchids as a horticulturist in Maui. He cultivates bloom and perfumed breath, a humid atmosphere of soothing. Good job for a poet who coaxes beauty out of horrors.
Prominent speaking parts are given to the characters of Justin and Mother and also the grandmother, Mombo, but the issue of dialogue is problematic enough (when the topics of communication are so fraught) that Dialogue itself becomes a character, as does Mental Ward — both character and setting — and so there are scenes/poems titled “Dialogue’s Monologue” and “Mental Ward’s Monologue,” and even Audience is given lines, along with Closure: “May I enter?” A non-comprehensive character list acts as Character List and names Poetry and Orchestra Pit and Stage Fright as characters interactive with Mom, Dad, and Justin. Throughout the play all sorts of figures, abstractions, shocks and imaginings take the stage, and speak, from the aforementioned Blood, to Cupboard and Heart, and Devil, and Dante, and Aeneas, and Camus, as well as Suicide of course, and Buckminsterfullerene, “(lovingly called Buckyball).” This latter enters with an illustrative complexity, multivalence of interpretation and activation, in the exact same manner as Schrödinger’s Cat and Chthonic White Space later appear: a recurrent stage direction of “[Mental Ward opens to reveal]” has Mental Ward as character and/or set offering Buckyball as a character or stage prop or set piece. Here, affliction makes everything speak, and yet the inadequacy of what can be said has its own silent inhabitance.
The Unspoken Poem bows and exits.
The multivalence of Mental Ward, as character and setting, and as actor-propellant for the drama and stage business, is illustrative of how Poets Theater works — as what can only first and primarily be imagined through the reading. The best playwrights are poets in this manner: Beckett and Shakespeare are best read; Shaw, more prosaically, is best read. Poets Theater, in particular, consciously employs the imagination of the reading to activate the poetic, and to realize the work’s imagery. The real imagined world is the original venue, and productions are merely approximations. Limoli’s Mental Ward is especially suggestive as a construct for the Theater of Imagination that is Poets Theater, but without bolted doors and bars on the windows, freeing the word mental: a mental space performs itself in real time. It’s more than staging the play limitlessly in one’s own head during the reading (although this in itself secures the work beyond the limits of mechanics, economics, and performance talent) — imagination has the capacity to release the image in its reality, unrestricted by distinctions between external and internal. In fact, while Mental Ward — or “Mental Ward” or Mental Ward — functions as an imagined setting and source of speech and action during the reading of Bloodletting, for any live staging however produced there would have to be likewise a layer of imagination implicitly engaged to make it function thus as an onstage presence.
Poetics Theater, taking off from the freedom from production exigencies long enjoyed by Poets Theater diy traditions in the U.S., and extending material playfulness from theatrical imagination to word and syntax, goes even further into structural invention and overturning of theatrical expectations. Further still, Poetics Theater is an operational theater for overturning linguistic expectations. In Limoli’s practice, this allows for a recasting of the word so that Suicide can say, “My name is Suicide repeatedly” and makes sense of stage directions such as “[Verbed tense.]” Here, sophisticated confrontation with the medium of language offsets the blunt subjectivity and emotion of Limoli’s personal tragedy. As much as vulnerability is brave, the avant-garde castigates autobiographical sentiment (and the avant-garde is the garden of Poetics Theater’s growth). This can be noted in the habitual decrial of the lyric, though I am noticing more defenses of same as of late, with all due defensiveness. Be that as it may, sui generis mastery embraces as many aspects of a medium as possible, and Limoli stays both transparent to the self-expression of his tragic event and dexterous with the textures of language’s materiality, objectivity, sensuous concretion. “Ashes between the two strokes/of cognizance.”
On the flip side, its avant-garde tenability notwithstanding (despite “tortured soul” theme and subject matter), the play’s play of aesthetics doesn’t in the least anesthetize or formalize away the truth — or the truth of suffering, or the bitterness of entreaty — as so often happens when invention is merely academic. Irresistible as Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” — Limoli’s grown man’s cry of “Mommy,”wrung out of him.
Anguish. Agony. Intensity. The dismissal of “heaviness” from experimental or mainstream quarters alike is an evasion. One can have a demand on the audience or reader. In fact, that comes with the territory of artistic commitment: “attention must be paid,” to quote a twentieth century theater classic. I don’t much see how a political demand can be made of the case of an attempted suicide by a young man’s mother (society is sick and sickening, Western civilization discredits itself consistently, her sickness and suffering could be connected to this state of affairs and probably there’s blame to be placed therein, and yet any campaign for some cause pulled out of her despair would be missing the point and missing her, and those like her); but the artistic demand on attention ought to push its claim. The artistic demand is warranted, and takes precedence over complaints against heaviness, puts to shame disdainful frigidity that designates as “confessional” the human, and tragic.
Cloaked Epiphany: Philosophical thinking begins with the human subject – not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human character.
Poetry at source is an intimate thinking, the philosophical personal. Art must open — or keep open, or hold threatened ground of — human spaces, including those of suffering. Justin Limoli’s Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms.] is raging, is in pain. Is a work of wracking love for a suicidal mother. Its intensity is its access. - Magus Magnus


Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms] is the debut verse play by poet-playwright Justin Limoli. Bloodletting follows the aftermath of a mother’s failed suicide attempt, detailing her son’s desperate attempt to make sense out of senseless grief. The play is a hybrid form, mixing the language of poetry and poetic forms like pantoums and sonnets with the traditional elements of a play.
In full disclosure, I went to school with Limoli at Columbia College Chicago. I didn’t know him very well, or talk to him often. He made me laugh in class. I knew he was writing a play. I never imagined that it would come together like this. I never imagined that a debut poetry collection could floor me. In light of this, it seems appropriate for this review to skew tradition. Poetry reviews generally read  like literary analyses, looking at technique, action, language. But Bloodletting blurs boundary lines. A play in verse, a poem acting as a play: everything in Limoli’s world is incomprehensible as a definite, singular object. The format has to change.  It must become an address.
Justin, I’m addressing this to you because I want this review to act as a command. I want everyone in the world to read your book. I want to make your book required reading for all the cowards in the world who call themselves poets & then hide behind flowers. You know these words are true because we are not friends. It has been so long since a book knocked me out.
It is the first page, & I am already crying.
This is the first line that plucks the stringed notes of my mother’s body.
This is the first line that calls her into being.
This is the first line that disassembles the inner verse of blood.
This line commits suicide, leaking into folded skin, becoming grief.
I wish I loved my mother as much as Limoli’s pantoums love his.  I am afraid that in order to love someone this much they must kill you, & I am a coward. I am purposefully saying Limoli. It is too cheap to separate the speaker, and this book deserves more. Justin is Justin. Limoli is the poet & the speaker & also Justin. Life is stupid. Order is disorder. Write a pantoum, the dumbest of all poems, in response. Make the pantoum amazing. Bring them back in fashion. Wring it out. There can be no delineation. Delineation is a farce.
Justin: [Eyes holding back the image] My mother--
 
Blood:                                                                      I am Blood, the
             bleeding finite.

Justin: Is this the beginning?

Blood: [Plucks Justin’s left iris.] Yes, and all beginnings need victims.

Justin: My mother just cut---

Blood: Yes, I saw. Now the play can get started.

Justin:  This is cruel.
Dear poets, how do you write a poem about suicide and not have it sound like trash? You too must be addressed because you make the rules. You set the table. Perhaps we must acknowledge that poetry is scum. Art is unethical. To scrounge pain for material is villainous. Justly, it is cruel to use tragedy for art. It must not be piteous, though. We must continue. We have to. There is no choice. Here is the first oxymoron.
Blood:  You have a story to tell, so here are your stage and canvas.
[Lops an ear off Justin and coddles the earlobe with whispers.] Narrate.
I wish I were this honest. I wish I were this giving.  I wish I was confused about poetry the way this book is confused about poetry.  Is this book a play? Suddenly I have a mode for the surreal, and it is breaking my heart.
A dialogue is meant to conceive what I cannot
say. I cannot say (repeatedly) because I am
simply an experimentation of language.
[Unstitches mouth to prove it.]
Dear poets, dying is absurd. Living is impossible. How do you grieve, in the face of these facts? Grieving is stupid, and it makes you stupid by association. You are the dumb friend. You die by accident. You die on purpose, and then fuck it up and come back to life.  Fuck your cutesy subconscious. These connections are absurd because they are real.  Godot is a little bit early, and constantly checking for his cue. Justin is Clint Eastwood & Clint Eastwood’s chair. Justin can say knife in a poem without a problem.  Bloodletting pulls poetic illusions about what makes a good poem off the shelf, fills it with water, and accidentally drops it on the floor.
[Justin plunges a fountain pen into Heart. Heart is now an inked setting with cursive.]

Heart: [To Justin] You clearly are not very good at conversing with hearts.

Molly Bloom:  Why, is it hard?

Justin [Writes] I’m not very good with things buried in my chest.

Heart: Correct! As it should be, my sniveling lemon drop. This is
             post-Shakespearean. The heart should not be spoken to directly.
When we blur these lines, when we make poetry less pure. When we make poetry less precious, we die, we submit, we say yes humanly.
This is what poetry is. Justin is better than you. Bloodletting does everything you are afraid to do. It kicks poetic convention to the curb because in the face of real suffering, none of our rules matter. Even the everyday shape of a poem cannot live up to pain. The poem repeats. The poem spills over. The poem becomes a play.
Make a note of this somewhere. Re-read Joyce.
Slipping implicates depth, and the gravity within your skin is related,
but what happened? Am I repeating myself, which I sometimes do,
lying to tell only myself, “She didn’t mean to, she didn’t mean to, etc.”
But she did, and I keep it, and it’s so sad that you lived.
As humans, we want to know the details of tragedy in order to better understand; to put disorder into order. But we know the natural state is entropy, so knowing becomes fear. We must know & not know simultaneously in order to divine understanding. How could one process a tragedy such as a mother almost-dying, except not to? This is the crux of the entire play, and Limoli’s words as a poet. Existence is liminal, cross-breeding. Mothers try to die and fail. The private is exposed on stage. Nobody is waiting for Godot.
Mom: Hello?
                                        [Enter an impatient Godot.]

Godot: Hello?

Mental Ward: Not, not yet.

[Mental Ward chases Godot offstage.]
This book is everything I have been waiting for poetry to be: rich language, intense imagery, unabashed emotion, apologetic destruction, a s(p)lit & thus cohesive self, a dialogue on poetics,  sneaky humor, living ghosts of our literary past, an honest poem.
Justin, I will never be the poet you are. I will never be the person you are. I am afraid. I am in awe. I am dying in the cheap seats in the back of the theater. Poets, read Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms]. This book is painful and so important. Everything is different now. We will never be the same. - m. forajter

OUCH.
TW: suicide, blood, self-harm

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