By Samuel Sattin
Ragnarok Publishing, 2015
524 pages, $20.95
“The (novel) form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.”
–Will Self, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)” (The Guardian 5/2/14)
In the literary world, we spend a lot of time making pronouncements about the death of the novel (or literature, or poetry), not enough trying to adapt the novel (or literature, or poetry) to a changing world. Even writers as astute and successful as Will Self can fall into this trap easily enough, trotting out their clever literary pets (rules and opinions, pronouncements and dictums, even the odd zombie analogy) while continuing to go against their own advice. To, in Self’s case, continue writing these supposedly useless novels, day after day, year after year.
Though we can’t be entirely sure based on the quote above, let’s presume that Will Self is not likening his own books to brutish brain-munchers unwilling to politely lie the hell down. Self is a writer (big W), an artist (big A). He’s trying to accomplishsomething, to make a statement. But maybe Self’s trying a little too hard to make that statement. This would explain why he’s missing the current stage in the novel’s development almost entirely.
Counter to Self’s implication that only a certain type of novel (literary, “challenging,”Finnegans Wake-ish) matters—that since these challenging (often unreadable) novels decline in popularity year in and year out this implies a terminus for the entire form—the current period in the novel’s history has more to do with literary democracy than elitism, more to do with the reader than the writer.
With film’s democratizing influence on 20th century literature as a springboard—the slipstream blending of literary prose, themes, and insights with genre material’s increased attention to plot, story, and dialogue (the qualities that can make for a great movie)—digitalization has, to get a little businessy about it, reduced barriers to market entry, made it easier for books to get to readers without the blessings of publishing conglomerates.
While this digitalization has led to a lot of static on Amazon’s virtual shelves (the million word Marxist polemic, the ten-volume zombie-porn-western series written in a fortnight) it’s also led to real, reader-friendly gems like The Silent End by Samuel Sattin—books that have something to say, do it in a literary way, but never forget the basic reader-writer compact, the writer fails to entertain at his own peril.
In The Silent End, Sattin has created a world instantly recognizable, yet entirely his own, one complete with a spiffy map that makes you feel a little like you’re setting off on an adventure before you’ve even gotten to the narrative. This map, and Sattin’s book, reference the small, fictional town of Mossglow, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Perpetually shrouded by clouds and fog, site of many an unexplained disappearance, Mossglow is home to our narrator and protagonist, high-schooler Nathaniel Eberstark, a lovable loser with few friends beyond the confines of his Sword Star league. (Sword Star is a sort of medieval/futuristic miniature strategy game, yet another nugget from Sattin’s fertile imagination.)
Chief among Eberstark’s friends is his brilliant bestie (and Sword Star compadre), Gus Mustus. Also central to the story is Eberstark’s would-be love interest, Lexi Navarro, a tough, chain-smoking teen with a fashion-accessorized eye patch and a beat-up Ford Bronco she calls the Shepherd. Mix in Eberstark’s haunted memories of his recently disappeared mother, a gang of town bullies (names like Charlene Poughkeepsie and Jesse Maroon echoing Bellow by way of Bugs Bunny), various (mostly nefarious) teachers and school administrators (with their own pithy names), and you’ve got the makings of an exciting story. This isn’t even the end of the ground situation, though.
Eberstark’s father, a grocer who appears to have gone insane in the wake of his wife’s disappearance, keeps to a bunker in the backyard where he and his mysterious, mute accomplice known only as the Hat (Hat for short) work to dubious, quasi-scientific ends. Convinced his father is probably insane (likely dangerously so), fearing the Hat may have sinister intentions, Eberstark nonetheless realizes the general vibe in Mossglow is more than a little off. And that’s before he and his friends find a dying monster in the middle of the woods on Halloween night, a monster whose blood gives life to inanimate objects.
Mysteries abound in The Silent End, danger lurking in even the most mundane places. From the basement of Eberstark’s family grocery store to his high school principal’s office and his father’s bunker, the suspense grows as the pages fly by. As cars and toys and still stranger things come to life, the book builds outward from its base of teen angst to create a crisply written, fantastical coming of age story filled with wry comedy and the honest pathos of a teenager reeling from his mother’s disappearance and semi-abandonment by his father.
There’s a little of everything in The Silent End, the result a sort of critical literary mass that leaves you thinking about things like sequels and movies. These are characters that grow on you as you read, friends you don’t want to see go. (Spoiler alert: Particularly, the Hat…) With exceptional pacing, speedy dialogue, and sharp descriptions, Sattin reveals himself as a major talent, someone who’ll be putting out fresh, exciting, reader-friendly books for years to come. And in the process he gives a sort of answer to Will Self (and anyone else lamenting the death of the novel): the novel is alive and well. And, to put it bluntly, kicking some major ass.