“Utopia is that which is in contradiction with reality.” – Albert Camus
“There is no way I can avoid thinking about the kind of world I belong to. The abuse of utopias disfigures everything.” – Floriano Martins
(Note: this is an edited excerpt from a longer discussion of the book that I hope to publish later. I’ll be discussing this book at Readercon 24’s Recent Fiction Book Club panel; the schedule is up at my blog. Also, some SPOILERS ahead for the book)
There are many things that I love about reading a novel, and one of them is when my expectations are inverted, tossed about, and I gain not just a new perspective on the narrative, but on my own thoughts. Robert Jackson Bennett’s latest novel American Elsewhere does that, but does not accomplish a singular objective so much as give the reader’s imagination a rich, sometimes messy terrain to explore. It is an SF novel, a horror novel, a broadside against Great American Novels, and an exceptional reading experience that became, to me, a meditation on and satire of the notion of utopia.
The story is not a complicated one: ex-cop Mona Bright travels to the obscure town of Wink, New Mexico to seek information about her dead mother and discovers a lot more than she expected. What she finds is a town that is perfect on the surface, an embodiment of The American Dream in its most caricatured form. But it takes no time at all for her to realize that under the skin of this Dream are darker things. This is not the usual stew of recriminations and cruelties, however; there are dark things literally under the skin of some of the townsfolk, and the town is bound together by strange pacts, fear, and a willful blindness to the world around it. Wink is a place between worlds, populated by humans and by other creatures, that is bruised and exceptional, and the inhabitants have conjured a shared life that obsessively tries to reflect a placid, compulsive vision of 1950s middle-class America as both shield and refuge from their respective worlds.
The novel is deceptively meandering; from the casual voice to the detailed asides about life for the residents and their inner ruminations, it feels loose and unfocused in places. It has genial excess and quantum-y exegesis scattered about the narrative, and near the center the novel becomes slow, gradually distorted in its temporal lensing. And then there are flashbacks and sections that break from the narrative itself. These departures, such as transcripts from the scientists whose project creates the conditions around Wink, seem to be more realistic and focused than the surrounding narrative, but rather than serving as answers or scientific anchorage for the story they only heighten the strangeness of the atmosphere. This section also provides a perspective for lensing the novel itself. When Richard Coburn, the scientist who led the project that results in Wink changing, talks about his work’s significance, we are also given something to ponder for the narrative as a whole:
“The most interesting thing we’ve found from the lens is that it suggests our own experience of reality is myopic. It is a bit like…I don’t know, like an ant crawling along a string stretched across a large room. The ant’s experience is largely two-dimensional. […] But the lens allows our perspective to expand outward. Our perspective gains more dimensions; there are things below us, above us, to our sides. There is an enormous, unexplored gulf of existence, or realities, all around; we simply can’t experience it because our perspective is a bit nailed down.”
As fantasies and certainties are both torn apart in the second half of the novel, the veracity of this idea becomes clearer. As Mona tries to understand Wink and its inhabitants, and find out more about her mother’s past (and herself) in the process, a fascinating story emerges, one that delves into people’s expectations about their world and how they maintain their place in it. The residents of Wink exist in a tangle of illusions and concessions that produce a simulacrum of utopia, and as this odd, creepy, sometimes profound and horrible web unravels the story changes from a mystery to an examination of how we conceive our sense of reality and our place in the world. As characters’ perspectives are forced to change, as the world around them changes, they must choose whether to adapt to that change, accept it, or be consumed by it. What often hinders them is their ideal of how the world around them works.
This is Camus’ conception of utopia, something that emerges from wounded reality and existential desperation. The world that the people of Wink create is based on a simple template that they can easily relate to, and that could give them some measure of security and comfort. And yet, because it is created in a series of agreements with powerful monsters in a location that is temporally and geographically unstable, it is tantalizingly viable even as it is constantly undermined by its unattainability. The inhabitants, regardless of their world of origin, struggle to maintain a practice of co-existence that cannot succeed unless everyone submits to it. What this produces is fear, anxiety, stagnation, and finally an eruption of rebellion. Reality is not what these characters think it is, and it is their “abuse of utopia” that distorts their view of it. When someone sets out to change reality itself, revealing some ugly things hidden beneath it, everyone has to choose whether to try to maintain their vision of the world or try to expand their perspective of the world and thus change how they live in it.
Mona’s arrival coincides with the breakdown of this delusional paradise. Mona is simultaneously unique and unexpected, a singular force in a world where everyone else is beholden to an idea or power or relationship. She is autonomous in a way that no one else in the story can possibly be; they are locked in to their roles and destinies, even those who disrupt the smooth proceeding of life in Wink. Which is, of course, a communally-generated illusion. Ties of family, community, and criminal enterprise are worn away by the stress and corrosion of Wink’s instability. For too long the inhabitants have managed to put off the collapse of their shadowy corner of the world, but as someone begins to pull the strands of the web apart the fragility of the utopia becomes clear.
In the end, nobody gets what they want. The edifices of nostalgic paradise and family ties and social agreements are all torn apart by, generally, desire. Some are remade but most are lost as people cling to their utopian perspective even though it has been revealed to be a delusion. No one in the novel is unchanged; whether they wanted it or not their perspectives have been expanded. What makes this feel. . . well, not “realistic” but resonant are all of those messy moments that inform the characters’ respective viewpoints and actions. The novel’s power comes from giving the reader so much information that there is a lived feeling to the experience of reading the story, and that makes what the characters go through, and how they deal with the ends of their worlds, that make American Elsewhere so satisfying to read.