Ivyland, by the American author Miles Klee, has proved to be a difficult novel to review.
First, I admit, my day job got in the way of reading it, but I guess that’s my problem and nothing to do with the book or this review, now that I’ve finally got around to writing it. Still, it’s therapeutic to whinge a bit and get things off my chest.
Secondly, the book is word-dense. It delights in language, its shape and its meaning, and though that can often make for an entertaining read, it doesn’t necessarily make for a quick one.
Thirdly, the promotional quotations on the back cover of the book and words within the novel itself have virtually done the job of describing and reviewing the novel for me. In particular, I give you:
“A weird, sensitive, totally messed up and wonderful book.” – Choire Sicha.
“Apocalyptic, word-drunk, inventive, hilarious… Miles Klee’s exuberant first novel.” – Andrea Barrett.
“Miles Klee’s fiction is not only devastatingly smart; it’s also ruthlessly hilarious. But I love it most for the manic comedy it manages to wring from despair.” – Jim Shephard.
Then there is the book blurb:
“Populated by a bumbling, murderous citizenry of corrupt cops, innocents, ravenous addicts, lovesick geniuses, and cynical adventurers, Ivyland operates in the shadow of a giant pharmaceutical corporation that thrives on people’s weaknesses… and may have an even more sinister agenda. It’s our world, only a bit more extreme, and lovingly, precisely depicted.”
There is also the opening epigram from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, “…and yet it does not matter that he’s all in bits… in a certain sense disintegration may have its advantages.” and words from the novel itself, “covert dreads run together“.
So what is left for me to say about Ivyland that hasn’t already been said?
I’d describe it as a jigsaw of a novel; a story that has already disintegrated and is now being reassembled as a coming together of language, images, episodes and “covert dreads”. These disparate elements initially make little or no sense, but gradually, as the pieces of the novel combine, patterns, dark clouds and storylines emerge in a gestalt configuration. Eventually a plot, of sorts, appears–but don’t expect every loose thread to be neatly tied up in a pretty, symmetrical bow. Some of the jigsaw pieces remain obscure (or lost under the sofa). Like real life, or disintegrating memories, much is inconclusive and the reader is left to guess, surmise or simply wonder.
Ivyland is a carefully and elegantly structured novel. You can sense Klee playing with words and narrative arcs and enjoying himself enormously. It is imaginative and vivid, a bit like an extended trip care of one of the many pharmaceuticals liberally consumed by the novel’s characters. There are ferrets and botched moon landings, botched medical procedures (leading to mental and physical disintegrations), caterpillars (lots of caterpillars), arboreal revelations of the Virgin Mary and bus rides: an urban and nihilistic Alice Through the Looking Glass for the dark days of the early Twenty First Century.
For all that, and as much as I enjoyed the craft of Ivyland, it’s not a novel I fully engaged with emotionally or imaginatively, but, and here I revert to my opening whinge about the day job getting in the way of the reading process, I admit I did not read Ivyland under optimum conditions. The lack of full engagement may well be a personal issue, rather than a failing of the novel. It is both cleverly and intelligently written and vividly imagined and on those grounds alone, you could do worse than check it out for yourself. It deserves that much.
J.S.Watts lives and writes in the flatlands of East Anglia. Her poetry and short stories appear in a diversity of publications in Britain, Canada, Australia and the States. Her debut poetry collection, Cats and Other Myths, is published by Lapwing publications. Her first novel is due out in Autumn 2012. You can find her on Facebook at facebook.com/J.S.Watts or on her website jswatts.co.uk