The protagonist of this satirical and borderline-dystopian novel must navigate familial crises, natural disasters, and the reach of a boorish, omnipresent head of state.
This is Reiss’ first novel after numerous volumes of poetry, but unlike many a poet-turned-novelist, he hasn’t opted for a stoic lyricism in his fiction. Instead, the active mode here is a satirical one. Set in the near future in a desert state grappling with sandstorms and external threats, this novel tells the story of a man named Boyd as his life undergoes several upheavals over the course of many days. A number of stylized elements stand out, including a ritualized aspect found in many characters’ speech, involving tributes to the head of state, one Guv’na Brush. Largely, this plays out like a fun-house reflection of contemporary politics, from Brush’s general dislike of literature, photography, and media to an allusion made to something being “a ruse cooked up by reporters.” Hints are scattered throughout as to how the present day gave way to this more catastrophic landscape; the ways in which dates have given way to a system based on a cult of personality suggest a more authoritarian version of the calendar found in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There are abundant contrasts to be found here, from the evocative landscapes that Boyd observes to the not-exactly-subtle commentary Reiss makes on American conservatism, militarism, racism, and anti-intellectualism. At times the juxtaposition between the two makes for a memorably jarring experience; at others, its relative success may depend on where its reader falls on the political spectrum.
When Reiss’ novel clicks, it works as both a strange vision of our own world and an evocative landscape unto itself; when it doesn’t, the result is flatter and less insightful about the present day.