Alexander’s (Naked Singularity, 2003, etc.) newest novel finds Hamlet taking place in rural America against the backdrop of 9/11 and the Iraq War.
“Something is rotten in the United States of America.” So says Alexander’s narrator, a young man named Hamlet. After his father dies on 9/11, Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, move to upstate New York, where they maintain a farm. After several years, Gertrude meets Claudius, a bureaucrat and scientist who contributed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology's World Trade Center report. Of course, Hamlet doesn’t trust Claudius, and, well, you no doubt see where this is headed—especially when Hamlet meets his old teacher, Mr. Horatio, a conspiracy theorist and engineer who has some ideas about 9/11. Yes, this is Hamlet reimagined as a truther, and in this retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the protagonist isn’t just feigning madness—he’s genuinely losing his mind. In the beginning, it feels like Holden Caulfield playing the role of Hamlet, but by the end, Jared Loughner has taken over. The tone never quite works in the novel’s second half; Alexander’s writing is a little too glib to support the heavy subject matter, a problem that becomes especially clear in the violent coda (bluntly powerful though it may be). The novel works best when the author jettisons Shakespeare entirely. The sequence in which Gertrude tries to convince her neighbors and fellow school board members to embrace healthier cafeteria options has madcap comic intensity. But Alexander’s desire to stick to Shakespeare means that the characters sometimes feel like props. For instance, Gertrude marrying Claudius feels less like something the free-spirited mother would do and more like something Alexander needs Gertrude to do to move the plot forward.
An occasionally clever novel that, in its weakest moments, makes a trifle of national tragedy.