Beyond the Valley of 1984


Christopher John Bostwick, The Undertaker's Revenge: (BAD NEWS!), 2010-2011

Dystopia and apocalypse are narrative tools of the political fantasist. Almost without exception they invoke a political and social order in crisis, refracted through the lens of a fictional society living through the extreme negative outcomes of that crisis. We are certainly living through one of those upheavals, and Miles Klee’s often frustrating, occasionally brilliant debut novel Ivyland offers glimpses of what a postcrisis world could look like if the various political and social movements of the left fail.

The global resistance to austerity politics has thus far functioned to "change the dialogue" and invigorate the left, and it has even begun to break down the broad conception that there is no alternative to capitalist democracy. But in policy terms, austerity continues apace. For an extreme, even dystopic example, Greece, which has seemed at times within hours of full-on revolution, continues to sell off national assets, lay off hundreds of thousands of government employees, and roll back vital social services to continue to receive loans to pay back earlier loans. As a result, Greek workers haven’t been paid in months, Greek youth are unemployed at 51%, and suicide and starvation are way up. Given this state of reality, only the occasional sci-fi element makes the violent, desperate landscapes of Ivyland seem totally fictional.

In Ivyland Klee points toward both dystopia and post-apocalypse, but unfortunately commits to neither, and as a result ends up producing a strangely ambivalent and underformed Hell. Ivyland, New Jersey, is a near-future college town within sight of Manhattan, all but owned by a pharmaceutical company called Endless. It’s is the kind of place austerity dreams of, where all services are privatized in exchange for total corporate domination, down to product-tie-in street names and the replacement of alcohol with Endless’s subtly named stimulant cocktail, Adderade.

As a result of Endless domination, the novel’s inhabitants take a whole lot of psychoactives, and the writing style reflects their often jumbled mental states. The action can be hard to follow, particularly early in the novel, as locations, names, and images collide with one another more than they unfold narratively. Witness the novel’s second paragraph:

She’d meant to see the miracle tree. Lenny passed it on a morning run to the nameless liquor place just beyond Ivyland’s border and had nothing to report save the drive by profanity he’d loosed on the jobless and devout gathered there. Hecuba laughed at that tossed-off barb, but more at his faked ignorance of the situation. If he hadn’t known, why call them that? It wasn’t the lucky marriage of enemy and epithet Lenny described, because he wasn’t deaf to people’s fascinations, no matter how little he listened.

This is an example of a very particular conceit, one becoming common among young novelists, in which it seems any introductory exposition has been removed and narrative clarity purposefully elided for poetic resonance. It forces you to slow down, pay close attention — perhaps a corrective response to the quick consumptive scanning of internet reading — but here that style frustrates and stops up the reading flow as often as it rewards.

If Ivyland ventures into experimental  territory syntactically, it stays within more traditional bounds with respect to genre. The line between dystopia and post-apocalypse in narratives is not always easy to draw. In their extreme forms, they can seem like distinct genres: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a father and son wander a post-atomic-event America fending off cannibals and starvation, is dystopic only to the extent that it would be a total nightmare to live in its world of physical privation and totally absent social order, while 1984 is terrifying precisely for the extreme totality of social control under a regime of permanent war.

But what about Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, which tells stories of nice Christian children not sucked up to Heaven during the Rapture and left on a rapidly deteriorating Earth? Technically pre-apocalypse, as the Rapture is its scriptural prelude, there is more at stake in the series than just the "dystopian" horror of a world without Christians. Similarly, attempts to categorize Children of Men could lead to Talmudic entanglements: The world hasn’t ended, but the threat of its ending has prompted the dystopic or horrific breakdown of society. So is the apocalypse a matter only of the physical destruction of humanity or does it include also the disappearance of its future? Has the apocalypse already occurred in the moments that the ICBMs hang over the ocean, or does it happen only when they actually detonate over the world’s capitals? Does dystopia need apocalypse, or vice versa, or does the question merely muddle our understanding of our own incipient real dystopia?

The truly great post-apocalyptic works, (e.g.: The Bed-Sitting Room, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro) have critiqued “real world” dystopias by portraying their crude and absurd reconstruction after collapse, while dystopic masterpieces often climax with the apocalyptic disappearance of subjectivity, represented by the protagonist’s psychic death but physical survival (Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, 1984). We could make the distinction that the dystopic work speaks to the psychological or spiritual violence of a society against its individual subjects, while the post-apocalyptic speaks to the structural and systemic violence of social (re)production as a whole. (Although, as Sinatra sang about another pair of similarly coterminous forms of social control, you can’t have one without the other.)

But Ivyland neither focuses on a particular character's psychic struggle nor provides a wide view of the social totality. Instead, it jumps giddily back and forth through time, from first-person narrator to first-person narrator, chapter by chapter. This works well for the book’s two main characters: the clear self-reflective voice of college student Aidan, going through a quarter-life crisis of sorts, counterpoints nicely with the drug-addled ravings of DH, the gas-addicted antihero on a petty-violence crime spree across the country.

The results are decidedly more mixed when the side characters get a turn at the wheel. Chapters focused on Hecuba, DH’s mother, (and the only chapters told in third person) provide helpful exposition about Ivyland and add a tragic undercurrent to DH’s madness, while a one-off chapter about a professor of Aidan’s is both hilarious and erotically charged, an excellent short story in its own right. Two chapters written screenplay style, however, fall completely flat, as they focus on world exposition in straight dialogue, the format least appropriate to such an endeavor. And an incursion into the mind of Grady, a man struck retarded by an allergy to an Endless anesthetic, is cringe-inducing. (“I was too afraid and looked around. 'Yeah, pajama pants. Come here.' But here’s what: everyone is wearing pants and can sleep in them, which means we’re all wearing of pajama pants.”)

Which is a shame, because Klee is capable of moments of breathtaking music. Near the end of a masterful passage of diegetic drug-induced confusion rather than just imitative syntactic play, Aidan, tripping balls, is running out of a beach house behind his best friend, Henri:

… my toes sinking into the cool dry fluid of the sand and movement becomes a joke. Henri has slowed down, too, I can tell, but as I sense the gap closing a weight hits my back, locking my knees and planting me face-first in the sand. I flip over, say something immediately disqualified as language. Phoebe is straddling my chest, a lurid grin plastered on her face. Even in spare light the fiery parts of her eyes move, contort, scary/sexy. She glows star-colored, lit from within. I give in for another moment till she comes too close and runs a perfumed hand through my gritty hair, another keeping me pinned. I clench my teeth when she kisses my earlobe, too, too intense and one-of-my-legs-can’t-tell-which jiggers insanely, thumping like an overexcited dog’s.

Klee has a real skill with the rhythms of consciousness, capturing the intuitive leaps made by a self-conscious mind telling itself the present and feeling how and when those thoughts require breaking grammatical constraint. When he allows himself to sink empathetically into his character’s voice, particularly when discussing childhood, he achieves poetry.

He’s quite funny, too, with a strong affinity for wordplay and deadpan cultural commentary. Here, we’re with Cal, Aidan’s brother, in near-Earth orbit, on a botched attempt to achieve another moon landing. “Truth is, Emma Reyes and I are NASA’s first to die in space … And we know in advance how this thing will run its course—‘mild case of celebrity amplified by death,’ as my brother Aidan once said of a starlet who came to a lurid, newsworthy end.” The problem is, well, why did we have to go to space for that joke?

We didn’t, and the stories particularly of DH and Aidan could be set in the present or in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970s. There’s nothing wrong with that, there are only so many stories anyway (mythical archetypes, Carl Jung, etc. etc.). But we’re entering a pretty fantastical world, and Klee takes long, frequent discursions into expository tales that don’t always hold up on their own and often connect back to the main thread in contrived ways. These vignettes, like one chapter’s mayhem-inflected drive around town with a privatized and sociopathic police officer, feel like part of a collection designed to weave an atmospheric fabric rather than tell a single, cohesive story.

This would be a fine thing to do, and, one feels, perhaps the way this novel got started. Instead, however, as the novel progresses, we focus in on DH and Aidan, whose stories do not require Ivyland’s near-future nigh-apocalypse setting, making the collapsing society seem superfluous, separate from the story Klee hopes to tell.

As the dystopian world is much more present in some stories than others, the limits of its reach are hard to grasp. A corporate conspiracy is in the works, bridges across the country are collapsing for no discernible reason, New Jersey is overrun with mysterious caterpillars, and everyone is zonked out of their mind on Endless pharmaceuticals. Sometimes it seems sure that the state has collapsed, other times merely its social safety net. Klee successfully produces a heavy sense of dread, but can’t decide whether to foreground the coming apocalypse or tell a bildungsroman over a dystopian background. He twice fails to make a necessary choice: once between dystopian or apocalyptic narratives, and once between a focused storyline or an experimental refracting of multiple stories. This failure to commit leaves both the novel and its vision of America in crisis incomplete, wanting.

Klee’s sharp ear for the rhythms of first person narration and awesome ability to unify flowing sequences of discordant imagery often go underused in the creation of Endless’ nightmarish regime. Sadly, a more focused vision of privatized dystopia may soon be unnecessary, as Klee’s next novel might present a similarly dreadful society merely being set in the present.