Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Julia Holmes, _Meeks_

A BRILLIANT SHORT novel, hard to categorize. The only comparison that comes to mind is with Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, set in a wholly imaginary place, but with the texture of realism rather than fantasy, while still being loosely enough attached to reality to sustain a parable-like quality. An auspicious debut, that's for sure.

Most of the book is devoted to two characters, Ben and Meeks -- Ben a young, single man whose parents are both dead and who is without visible means of support, Meeks a homeless man of indeterminate age who is under the impression that he is a police officer. Ben's sections are narrated in the third person from Ben's POV, Meeks's in the first person.

For most of the book, one's readerly attention is less absorbed by the situations of Ben and Meeks than by the task of figuring out how the society they imhabit works. As a "bachelor," Ben lives in a special rooming house, and needs a pale suit -- he has only a black one, thus is excluded from "Listening Parties," his best bet for finding a woman to marry. If he does not find a woman to marry by "Independence Day," this community's big September commemoration of its founding by Captain Meeks, he will have to put on a gray suit and become a manual laborer. Meeks (named for the captain, we suppose), known to the community as the crazy man who sleeps in the park, is not a player in this high-stakes marriage market but has worries of his own, e.g., being carted off to parts unspecified by the "Brothers of Mercy."

Holmes gradually reveals that Captain Meeks founded the community on two principles, that communities endure because they are united by a threat and because social norms are rigorously conformed to. Thus we have the "Enemy," in the unending war against whom Ben's father died, the stringent duty to marry or toil for those who have, and the sacrifice which (we at length learn) forms the central act of Independence Day observances.

All too accurate an allegorical analogue, methinks, to the Bush II years. The elements are familiar -- we have a bit of M. Night Shymalan's Village (as read by Zizek), a bit of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a bit of Auden's "Horae Canonicae" even (as Girard might read it) -- but at the same time the book has its own atmosphere, mainly due to Holmes's fresh and precise prose. One of Ben's memories:

He smelled the narrow, speckled fish cooking, spiked on sharpened sticks stabbed deep into the sand beside small fires, blazes of yellow-orange flower. Beached jellyfish were thick lenses on the sand. His mother brought him a mango; he peeled away the skin inexpertly; he bit into the sweet sherbet-colored fruit; he scraped the hard pit with his teeth. He buried the pit in the sand and rinsed his hands in the seawater. He followed the paranoid, supercilious crabs from wet rock to wet rock. He stared down the long, narrow, speckled fish that gathered in the tidal pools when the tide went out, the fish all facing forward dourly like parishioners in the cool cathedral space between the jetty rocks.

Holmes's ability to animate such moments ensures that the parable unfolds without a dull page.

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