“The young ones smiled through their hunger and dreamed only of biting the horizon, of the great iron machines eating up earth beneath their wheels, and of freedom.”
There’s a Steinbeck-esque feel between these pages, to the Great Depression backdrop to the broken down automobiles to the darkness creeping in on the edges. Problem is, I hate Steinbeck.
Robert Jackson Bennett is a name that, like the gradual descent into madness most of our characters experience, has been slowly inching his way to the top of the genre sphere. His most recent debuts, The Troupe and City of Stairs, found critical acclaim in many circles. And while he is subjectively a great writer through and through, I would argue there’s a reason nobody talks about his first debut.
Mr Shivers is not your normal book. The blurb is misleading in a sense, and perhaps that’s my own problem. It leads you into this false sense of a revenge story. It makes you think this is some normal pulp romp that’ll take no time at all, maybe insert philosophy here and there for good measure, and actually show the depths it takes for a normal band of heroes to descend when faced with survival.
On the surface, it appears to be an engaging plot. How far would you go for vigilante justice? To see the one who murdered what was closest to your heart die between your fingers? The path to darkness is a path of inches, and while Bennett may show this unlike many, it takes him twenty pages. This is not a chase as he might tell you, but a bumbling journey that goes nowhere for the span of three hundred pages.
To be clear, if you’re looking for some story to fill one or two evenings of mindless adventure, this is not your tale. Some have called it subtle and sublime, and I have to agree; tack on pretentious maybe for good measure. But that’s not to say he doesn’t do some good things with the revenge plot bones given to him. There’s a reason he’s won some awards for this novel. He does what many authors don’t: He actually shows how far people are willing to go to win. It’s a personal favorite of mine, surviving at the barest of human psyche, and the added flavor of hobo culture is just icing on the cake.
Truthfully, whereas the plot is meandering and almost meaningless in most regards, the world-building is phenomenal. Keeping in line with the rest of book’s theme, it’s a quiet progression of mystery and macabre. Parallels to Steinbeck are unwarranted; they’re two very different approaches, one fluxed with detail, this one holding little but doing I’d say a better job.
“It would be easy to blame all the evils of humanity on one madmen, wouldn’t it? It’d be simpler. And comforting. But that doesn’t make it so.”
The Great Depression was a perfect set piece for this story. Not only does the lawless revenge tale meld well, but as I said, the themes of rooting for survival, people looking for a purpose, perhaps blame the deaths on something other than bringing them together, and also the various campfire mythologies that exist to percolate the world do a grand job of stabling a coherent atmosphere. But on that note, there is one problem I had, and it might be a little controversial.
Mr Shivers is about as Fantastical as Star Wars is Science Fiction. I’m not sure if it’s because Magic Realism is not my cup of tea, but you could strip out all the mystical elements and still have a wonderful story intact, albeit requiring stronger metaphors in the prose.
Frankly, anything added to the prose would’ve been better than that in the beginning.
It’s bare bones and brown-nosed. It’s boring. It’s hard to get into, almost as hard as the script-like dialogue. But like a lot of things in this novel, it takes a bit of getting used to. I’m not sure if it’s because time softens all mistakes or what, but as I kept on trucking, I came to love the simple prose. It became clear cut and haunting at times, especially near the end. The last chapter in particular exemplified this and made me truly excited for what was to come with him. If it could’ve been like that throughout, well, it would’ve been remarkable, but leave a little room for growth one might argue.
“’That’s how you know you believe something,’ he said. ‘If you wound up dying for it and thought, well, that’s okay.’”
However, while the book may slowly come together and compel the reader to continue, the characters are anything but moving.
Our band of misfits are bland, one-notes: There’s a Jew, a fiery youngster, a former pastor that’s more than he seems, and a full-of-grief protagonist that is harder than the rest without real reason to be. Yes, Marcus Connelly (who I had no idea what his first name was until reading the blurb again) is the opposite of compelling for most of the book. As I’ve reiterated, he follows the group and shambles around. He barely fights unless provoked, and that’s not for a few hundred pages. We know little of why he’s on this journey, other than his daughter was killed by the scarred man, our antagonist.
The rusty dialogue helps little in establishing any concrete characterization in anybody. People flit in and out of this story, save for three or four that I mentioned above, and even then, I’m not entirely sure I pinpointed exactly what each character was. There was no focus on them, perhaps none explicitly said, and while that’s more commendable than a stereotypical caricature, slapping realism as a motive only gets you so far.
Seriously, sometimes I would rather have had our pastor, Pike, as the protagonist. He went through something at least, having been on this journey longer than all the rest. He had seen some things, and by the end, I was actually rooting for him to go kill Mr Shivers.
Which reminds me, for all this criticism, there is one that is ridiculous. Bennett, like most intellectuals, enjoys his daily dose of philosophy. I am the same. But when the only way to relay these themes (many of which don’t go far enough, such as the religious overtones) is to insert a crazy, it becomes, well, insane. The problem with this approach has two reasons, of which I will give examples of the contrast.
Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King had Nothing, a slippery little fellow shouting quotable lines here and there, waging through the thick of battle with a grin plastered on his face. He is given a pass because he’s seen some things. He has experience that is consequentially used to elevate his characterization. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns had Jorg Ancrath, a youngster without experience per se, but a closeness given in the perspective. Through the prose we are said snippets of his wandering mind, and everything makes sense. Everything falls neatly into line.
Mr Shiver’s attempts at philosophy have no experienced characters to do this (or when it does, it refuses), little is relayed through the prose aside from necessity, and coherency for these themes is a laughing matter.
Bennett takes twenty pages to fix a car and tell us, “There’s no going back. Not now. Not ever, least of all in the middle.” While this plot point is commendable, the above two authors could do this in the span of a few pages, maybe paragraphs. The story can be like molasses, and yet, somehow it kept me going. As I’ve said multiple times, it’s strangely compelling, not in the story but in the telling.
Which begs the question: Can a book with this many faults be redeemed? This was something I struggled with, but after much reflection, I’d say yes. The ending is superb. If only half of the book had been this great, it would’ve been shoved to favorite status. Put simply, everything comes together and all worries are thrown out the door.
There’s action. There’s suspense. There’s twists and turns and a dark descent into primal lands, both psychological and real. It is a tour de force, not some hyperbole I’m wont to throw out willy-nilly. There’s an explosion in the last thirty or so pages that’ll blow your mind and leave you reeling for more. I know it did me.
At the end of the day, this is a subtle, quiet, sleeper hit that will appeal to many readers, just so long as you stick with it. The spinning of the tale will string you along, and like me, don’t worry about where it’s taking you. Don’t fixate on too many of the problems.
Because while there are many, I feel Robert Jackson Bennett’s debut finds some retribution hanging at the end. Perhaps in the little jabs he gives to the past, like Steinbeck. Or perhaps in the strange namesake antagonist as well.
“There’s never…There never is anything. You go somewhere so hard and so fast and then when you get there you’re in the same place. Feels like there’s no reward. Nothing to go for. I hate that feeling. That feeling that you’re not getting anywhere. That you’re not getting anywhere good. I wonder if it’s that way for everyone.”