There is, allegedly, an unspoken codex for reviewers when it comes to debut novels. The short of it is: debut novels deserve a little slack. Harumpf, I say, and hogwash. Whether a book is someone’s first or their fortieth, I want to give it the same once over, the same burning eye of Sauron, the same bubbling enthusiam—where each applies. But there’s no need to turn a blind eye to the faults of Jennifer Marie Brissett‘s debut novel Elysium (2014, Aqueduct Press) because Elysium is a fucking great book. No “debut novel? well it was greaaaat,” wink wink nudge nudge shuffle shuffle required.
As I mentioned when I talked about Elysium‘s first paragraph last week, this book caught my eye when it was nominated for the P.K. Dick Award. I happen to be an (obsessive) (raving) (diehard) fan of P.K. Dick, and Elysium does what so many of P.K. Dick’s best books do: it made my mind go all bendy as the world in the book spun the world around me.
The book begins with two survivors in some ruins after an apocalypse, and the brief mention of a green dot in the sky. Then the story shifts. The characters we meet are always called Adrain, Antoine, Helen, and Hector, or some variation thereof. Their identities shift, their circumstances, their sexual preferences, and their gender, but the foundation remains the same: someone loved has been lost, and the world has ended—though a literal apocalypse is not always the reason. Transitions between stories are managed via what looks like computer code. With each loss the computer processes errors, reboots, reinstalls, begins again. It was this device that made the novel so cohesive, giving what could easily have become an inaccessible experiment in structure a frame that held it all together, and that provided an additional mystery worth sticking around to solve.
Elyisum was exciting. Not because of edge-of-your-seat action, but because watching an author successfully execute this acrobatic a narrative is absolutely thrilling. (Says the person who babbles about Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch at the first chance when drunk.) Reoccuring images of owls, mirrors, and deer connect each story, while later the repetition of entire scenes in the hands and mouths of other characters—something that might have become annoying when not applied with a delicate touch—add to eerie feeling of dejavue present throughout the novel. Bits of each story bleed into the others. Is any of this real? Is it all one story? Is my loss your loss is his loss is her loss? What is with this computer program that is running the story? What the fuck?! But Elysium had me WTFing in the best of ways. Not “WTF is this bullshit?,” but “WTF this is the coolest shit I’ve read all year.”
“Out of the blue, blue sky a ship flew. It was too fast to be a plane. Then there were more of them. They raced as though piloted by madmen. Their exhaust lines streaked the air in their wake like sheet music. Silver and shiny and soundless, the ships soared directly into the city and slammed into the two highest buildings. Orange plumes mixed with black smoke blossoming into the air.”
The above paragraph is exemplary of Brissett’s style, and I enjoyed reading it, though I’d bet my lunch that in a few more novels her voice will emerge from its paper coccoon an awesome and powerful thing. The writing was never weak, but there were a couple—and I mean that literally, I marked two—moments when I felt that the writing was not as strong as Brissett is so obviously capable. For one, I disliked the mention of “a monitor screen gone wrong” in the book’s first paragraph (read it here) because it made me think of the first line of Willaim Gibson’s Neuromancer, and the reference felt out of place. Elysium and Neuromancer are from totally different dimensions, and even that early in the book the connection felt out of place. I’d find it interesting if I knew it was intentional, though if it was not, I’d just wish for a different similie to set the avanlanche going.
There is a beautiful section where people have grown wings, and a father and daughter survive with a kitten in an abandoned office building. There are so many beautiful scenes, beauty among the ruins. A strange dust that turns people into birds and reptiles and monsters. A computer program running in the Earth’s atmosphere. There are aliens and illusions and spaceships and women and people of color and queers. Yeeeeees.
Queer Representation (Hey, there’s a spoiler in this paragraph. Skip down to “In Conclusion” to avoid it.)
If I hadn’t just read Renay of Lady Business’ review of City of Stairs, I might not have noticed. But I had and I did, and the moment it drew to my attention was my only big complaint with Elysium. There are a number of queer characters in the book (hurrah), one of whom is a trans women named Helen. Helen becomes good friends with Adrain while they are both in a mental institution. Just before the world ends, Adrain’s brother Antoine arrives to take his brother home, and when Helen helps him do so, he takes her along as they attempt to flee to safety, which they briefly find in a conveneince store. Until the zombie things come.
Story: Holy shit here comes a scary monster hoarde!
Antoine: Fight! No, wait, we’re all going to die! Run!
Helen: I will sacrafice myself so you shall live!
Why? Helen tells us: “Because you saw the real me.” But Adrain doesn’t hear her because he’s too busy running to save his own ass.
Antoine, the manly man back from the war to save his brother couldn’t have been the one to sacrafice himself? The three of them couldn’t have worked together to survive? The only possible solution was to kill the queer? To have a queer character sacrafice herself because she was so grateful that somebody finally treated her like a fucking human? Ummm….
On the one hand, there are other queer characters in Elysium who don’t get the chop, so Helen does not need to stand for all of Queerdom here. On the other hand there was no reason why Helen needed to go matyr and sacrafice herself just because another human had finally shown her some respect. People should have been showing her respect all along! She wasn’t the kind of character who wouldn’t have known that! This scene felt totally wrong! Damn it! On the other other hand, trans people deal with this kind of bullshit in the real world—not being accepted as they are and, you know, liking it when people do show acceptance and respect—but shit, no matter how I try to frame it, it is an ugly trope that you can find described word for word in the Bury Your Gays entry on the tvtropes wiki: “the Magical Queer has died in a Heroic Sacrifice so that the straights may live.” We don’t actually know that Antoine and Adrain are straight, but same difference.
This is a pretty big blip in an otherwise queer-friendly novel—I can count six queer characters off of the top of my head, and there were probably more (thanks short-term memory!)—but because the novel was so obviously interested in representing queer characters diversely and well, I call good intentions. Elysium is a novel about loss, and Helen is not the only character who suffers and dies, and you could argue that many of the straight folks meet a more gruesome fate: A straight woman is buried alive for breaking her oath of chastity. Others fall sick or are killed battling aliens or die after a whipping in a POW camp. As the novel focuses on losing the ones we love—and Helen is someone dear to Adrain—you will have to decide for yourself if the Anyone-Can-Die Card makes this scene one that you can accept as part of a discussion about loss or one that makes you want to throw the book across the room.
In Conclusion (Welcome back, people who skipped the spoiler.)
Elysium is an ambitious novel (pod, I fucking hate it when people say that about novels. but it’s true! and I have sworn to speak the truth!), and it fulfills all of its promises. The structure is exciting, if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about an experiment, and the ending wraps the whole thing up in a satisfying way while maintaining its elasticity. I can’t wait to see what Brissett comes up with next.
Ten out of eleven (functioning) water pumps.
If you’d like to hear a bit more from her while you’re waiting for that second novel, check out our interview with Brissett about what she would do in the event of an actual apocalypse on 1000 Ways to End the World.
Where I got it: Sent for review by the publisher
Where you can get it: The Book Depository