BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When Mayor Adams of Joshua City declares war on another city-state to augment his own power, he unwittingly unleashes the chaos and discontent bubbling under the city’s surface. Soon, the revolutionary Underground and the Mayor’s corrupt administration find themselves on a collision course.
PROS: creative use of a fictional authorial persona, strong main and secondary characters, skillful transitions between multiple locations and perspectives.
CONS: because much of this novel is set-up for the rest of the trilogy, we’re left with many questions and loose threads (not necessarily a bad thing, though).
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for an engrossing dystopian novel that flirts with theology, philosophy, and meta-fictional elements, you’ve found it here.
Most novels (including works of speculative fiction) are written by a single author who creates a narrator(s) to tell a particular story. It’s usually as straightforward as that.
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, though, is not like most novels.
Before you can even get to the dystopian, post-apocalyptic story about a city ruled by a corrupt mayor who wages war in order to unite all of the other cities under his leadership, you have to wrap your head around who exactly is telling this story. The cover states that The Doors You Mark Are Your Own was written by Aleksandr Tuvim and translated from “Slovnik” into English by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement. We’re even given a “Note on the Translation” by Elliott and Clement, as well as a prologue about why this book (the first of a trilogy) was written in the first place.
Thing is, Tuvim himself is a fictional character. Elliott and Clement didn’t really translate this text- they wrote the entire thing. Now, some readers/reviewers may pass over this point, or refer to it simply as an interesting oddity, but I see it as an integral part of the story itself.
First, this novel spans a vast amount of time, presumably taking place after a worldwide disaster that shrank the remaining population down to seven cities (?). The time before this catastrophe is aptly called the “before time” (which is supposed to be our time- I think) with an accompanying text that is studied, read, and taught much as the Bible is in our reality. And then there’s the translators’ “time,” which takes place much later than the events of the story itself. Elliott and Clement, in their “translator’s note,” situate themselves during a time of “post-Calamity reconstruction,” which includes a country known as the “Federated States of America.” Margaret Atwood also uses this kind of double-remove narrative style in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the last chapter features academics at a scholarly conference (some time in the future) analyzing the text that we just finished reading. In both novels, we as readers, in our present historical moment, are relegated to a very distant past. If thinking about this manipulation of historical time is making you feel dizzy, then you’re doing it right.
Second, such temporal jumps and multiple authorial layers force us to consider the text not as a work of speculative fiction written in 2015 by two very talented authors, but as an artifact, something that can be applied to our own time and world. Many elements of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own refer back to 19th- and 20th-century political and social history: socialism, Hollywood’s Golden Age, the rise of Nazi Germany, and present-day wars and surveillance technology. For instance, Nikolas Kovalski, one of the main characters and leader of the revolution, mixes talk of “class struggle” and the “means of production” with other revolutionary declarations meant to convince the People to overthrow their government and reject its corruption and warmongering. The wealthy and powerful actors and actresses in Silverville (read “Hollywood”) aren’t even immune to the government’s prying eyes, and are pressed into service to make propaganda films.
Why the warmongering and propaganda? Mayor Adams, the leader of Joshua City, has scapegoated one of the other cities in order to become even more powerful. Blaming Ulan-Ude for the return of “nekrosis,” a flesh-rotting disease, through poisoning the water supply (water is a scarce and precious resource in this reality), Adams calls up the army to attack Ulan-Ude and ultimately unite the seven cities under his leadership. Negotiations with the leaders of the other cities, though, come to nothing, and the armies of Joshua City and Ulan-Ude appear to be evenly matched.
As the war rages, Nikolas’s brother Marcik, a soldier, is captured by the enemy and tortured in a POW camp until he leads the other prisoners in a daring escape. Taking on the persona of a general who was killed at the prison, Marcik (aka General Schmidt) successfully battles an Ulan-Ude regiment and returns to Joshua City in triumph, where he’s asked to turn his attention to the unrest within. Thus the Kovalski brothers are pitted against one another in a struggle for supremacy, one convinced that the city must burn in order to be cleansed of its corruption, the other determined to uphold the status quo.
Secondary characters, like the engineer Abraham Kocznik, medical student Adrian Talbot, and revolutionary Katyana, provide insight into the complex socio-economic structure of Joshua City and fresh perspectives on the costs of war and surveillance. And then there’s Messenger: a small band of stealthy and cunning warriors whose power over city affairs is much stronger and more pervasive than anyone suspects. And what’s their role in the nekrosis outbreak? Hmmmm….
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is a sprawling, multi-layered text (over 700 pages long) that does a lot of world-building while setting us up for the next book in the trilogy, also “written by” Aleksandr Tuvim. And to complicate things even further, many of the characters talk about their favorite author, Aleksandr Tuvim, and enjoy reading passages from his Ethics of Being. Tuvim remarks on these references to his own work in footnotes, reminding us that the text we are reading is an artifact that continuously comments on itself. It is made up of straight narrative, Nikolas’s journals, Tuvim’s musings, and the “translators'” notes.
I won’t spoil the end by telling you if the uprising succeeds or not, but I will say that I want the second and third books in the trilogy yesterday. Pun intended.