REVIEW SUMMARY: A subversive, sometimes lunatic series of incursions that raid the intersections of desire, fear, and resilience to reflect on what makes us human and inhuman, and why the lines sometimes blur between those distinctions.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In three interlinked stories Doubinsky creates a labyrinth, in the best sense of the term. We explore, reflect upon, and are sometimes stymied by these tales of war, crime, and poetry in a city that is mythical and reimagined, one full of people that we both recognize and do not want to look at. Stylistically and structurally intricate and intense, this book challenges the reader at every turn as it conjures a world that is strange yet resonant.
PROS: Aggressive, audacious prose; innovative structure and style keeps the reader off-balance and engaged; fearless exploration of characters’ inner lives; ideas and questions that linger long after the reading is done.
CONS: A few of the characters felt flat to me.
BOTTOM LINE: A great book that is demanding, disturbing, and mesmerizing.
The best books are often the hardest ones to review; it’s easy to heap superlatives on a novel and praise it so much that you lose sight of what makes it so good. But Seb Doubinsky’s Goodbye Babylon is a work that demands more than that; to just call it “excellent” or “powerful” makes it sound like any book that gets a glowing review. It is an excellent novel, and is a powerful artistic work, but there is much more to it than those adjectives can encompass. It is philosophically intricate, viscerally evocative, and unsettling as it melds pulp sensibilities, Beat echoes, and textual legerdemain to create a maze of words and sensations for the reader to get lost in, so that they may figure out their own path.
Goodbye Babylon is divided into three sections: The Birth of Television According to Buddha, The Yellow Bull, and The Gardens of Babylon. Each of these sections is formatted differently, organized as its own narrative, yet the three sections work together as a literary labyrinth. Each section tells its own story as part of a larger enigma; they create associations, disjunctures, and a palpable, sometimes vulgar momentum as lives and actions careen into each other. The plot is fragmented; each section has its own arc, but these are barely-visible skeletons to structure the thoughts and feelings Doubinsky wants to incite in the reader. It is a story of people trying to make their way through a world of violence, disappointment, and temporary pleasures. It is the story that we all go through, essentialized and rendered absurd and vibrant within the pale framing of some familiar narrative constructs.
The Birth of Television According to Buddha is the strangest of the three sections, as Doublinsky employs a scattered, anarchic approach to introduce us to the city of Babylon and some of its citizens: a writer, a cameraman. a trickster, an opportunist. Doubinsky juxtaposes a divergent series of vignettes and asides to create a web rather than a linear narrative. Several lives collide in the center of this web, but at the same time we are told about the beginning of the world, about the significance of colors, and follow an individual named Waldo who undergoes a series of bizarre transformations. Each chapter is an attempt to transform what the reader is experiencing:
White is the sun and daughter of all colors, and the brother and sister of music. White withers between shadow and light, in which she bathes like a maiden or a handsome young man. White is the color of insanity and happiness., of tender and murdering passions. There is nothing brighter than the white of an eye, more mysterious than the white of a tooth, more tender than the white of a bone. Silence is white, too. When you close this book you will understand.
Impressions of sex, betrayal, ambition, and fear flash before our eyes in each brief “chapter,” which vary from a blank page to a few hundred words; soldiers banter as they wait to die, infidelity wrecks lives and inspires art, and God dies in the revelation of the world’s roots. This section is a harsh introduction to the world of Babylon; it does not give us backstory, but shows us the foundations of the labyrinth by destabilizing the reader’s expectations. What lies ahead may look more orderly, more linear, but it is built on a foundations of emotions, assumptions, and misapprehensions of reality that are sensuous and uneven, like experience itself. Passion and hesitation both create traps; contingency and chance draw people into them. Even as escape seems possible other forces, whether public opinion or a stray bullet, shape the course people can follow in their lives. Part of the predicament and promise of the labyrinth is that its shape is cryptic and mercurial yet the directions people choose can profoundly alter the course of others’ lives as well. Death makes a woman’s career, a man is happier as a fish, a lost soldier finds a temple where enlightenment comes from the worship of televisions, and we discover that the color purple “doesn’t like small talk.” It is a bizarre array of scenes, yet every moment is grounded in emotion and resonates.
Both the style and structure of the novel become tighter in The Yellow Bull. We are suddenly thrust into an existential crime story where Police Commissioner Georg Ratner is trying to solve the case of a serial killer while solving the puzzle of his own life. This section of the novel reads more straightforwardly, even as the numbering of sections re-starts at one point with a different typesetting and style. As Ratner struggles with his own existence and his wily opponent, we are drawn into the city more deeply. Sheryl Boncoeur, a TV reporter who is a common character through the three sections, also becomes embroiled in the hunt for the killer Riban-Riban and is a sort of distorted mirror for Ratner to look into as he tries to resolves the bundle of dilemmas that constitute his life. Even if the story resolves, lives continue to change. Sometimes we can find moments of respite and perhaps even some joy as we prowl the never-ending maze around us; a policeman uses poetry as escape, a young man uses brutality to make the world see, and Ratner finds every path in life difficult to negotiate as he tries to find answer that will bring him at least momentary peace.
The writing is even sharper in this section, as Doubinsky distills each moment with lyric concision:
She laughed. Sun on ice.
His characters emerge most clearly and complexly in this section; Ratner, his protege Lieutenant Valentino, Boncoeur, even the comatose Barbara have a flawed lucidity that draws you into their lives. But the story still dances on a sharp edge as the hunt for the killer ends and the reader’s expectations are undermined at every turn. The resolution to this section’s story is not unique, but felt unexpected and contented, like a lesson suddenly learned from a strange teacher.
The final section, The Gardens of Babylon also has a progression, yet is offset from the other two with its combination of dark satire, profound life decisions, and explosive moments of violence. It feels set in the future of Babylon, with its guilds of poet-assassins and drug-use parks. The story focuses primarily on Speedy Jimmy, a successful assassin who seeks redress for damage done to his reputation, but shifts between that and two other characters on the verge of life-changing decisions: a poet contemplating exile from his muse and a woman damaged by the city who see no way out of the life she has made. This section moves between the three stories, which intersect at times, as each character undergoes a journey to resolve their dilemma:
In the bus on her way to the Sonic Bar, Cassandra looked at the streets of the city through the large dusty windows. They formed a labyrinth of concrete and dirt with a Minotaur at every corner, waiting to feed on fresh meat.
But she was no Ariadne herself — no sir, not at all.
She was like all the others; she was lost in this labyrinth too.
Both the pulpishness and existential dilemmas are muted in “The Gardens of Babylon,” but there is a lot to uncover beneath the words. I was mildly disappointed in the resolutions to this section because I didn’t feel that it “finished” the story, but this section requires more re-reading to see what it accomplishes. It creates questions as it impels you to go back and consider the other two parts of the book and create your own resolution. What Goodbye Babylon leaves you with are questions that you want to answer, to take apart and see what sense you can make of them.
I like novels that make me consider questions, as opposed to those that are confusing. Doubinsky dances on the edge of nonsense a few times, but it feeds back into the novel’s potential effects on the reader. This book asks much of the reader, and gives much back in return by creating a labyrinth that is abstruse but accessible. The prose styles vary in each section, but all of them are concise and engaged, whether the point is a deep or crude one. The labyrinth is dynamic; it can change, it can suddenly open up, or it can close off (at least, to one’s eyes) any chance for escape. The novel’s fragmentation is not surreal, but adventurous; the pieces both fit and create friction, which gives the novel a very distinctive energy. Doubinsky holds the reader’s attention at all times because there are no wasted words; there may be words that may not make sense or may change what is going on in the reader’s mind, but they all need to be there and all of them build earnest and demented, tender and startling images and voices in the reader’s mind.
You can feel the heat and closeness of the lives on the page, be irked and aroused and perplexed; that is the energy the impels you through the tangled world of the city. Life is a maze that we each hope has answers or rewards as we figure it out, yet always ends with us facing the minotaur, with finding out that we ourselves are the minotaur. There is no escape, just the constant struggle to make sense of the dead ends and snaking passages, the moments of excess and failure. We discover understanding but it only drives us deeper into despair; mysteries are solved only to bring one to new conundrums. Decisions that seem clear are obscured by emotion, by habit, by the incipient madness that hovers around whatever we constitute as reality. There are moments of comprehension, of pleasure and connection, but nothing lasts because there are still paths to follow, missteps to correct, and the exhaustion caused by living that has to be constantly dealt with in order to continue on.
The characters’ negotiation of their journeys through the labyrinth of life is the action that propels this novel, but this action is fragmented, compulsive, and divergent, yet constantly curving back into the nexus that this book swirls around. How life goes on despite the capricious, often cruel world that surrounds us is the most central theme in the novel. How life continues after death is part of this theme as well, as some characters die but all of them must deal with death and, thus, with life. Vitality and its connection to destruction recurs as the driving current of the story, and each section of the novel channels that current in a different way. Thus, each is a different sort of maze for the reader to move through, and each section has its own strengths and provocations.
Not everything makes sense, but what is understandable, what creates questions and reflections in the reader’s mind, is up to the reader to discern and take in. The themes are large in Goodbye Babylon, but Doubinsky gives the reader many ways to understand them. Occasionally I felt that some of the characters weren’t doing their job, especially Cassandra in the third section. Many of the characters have much to offer but a few seemed rote, elements to be acted upon rather than actors. Even Sheryl Boncoeur felt a bit under-developed despite her presence in all three sections of the novel. This feeling emerged from the fact that there were so many hard-hitting moments, so many instances of humanity in the insanity of life in Babylon, that I wanted there to be even more to explore and take away from the novel. Unyielding in its portrayal of both its empathy and cruelty, Goodbye Babylon is one of the best novels I have read this year.