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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Kit Reed: "Where: A Novel"

Author:  Kit Reed  
Title:  Where 
Plot Type:  Paranormal Mystery (Magical Realism?)
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—1   
Publisher:  Tor (5/2015)

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                         
     In the coastal town of Kraven on the Outer Carolina Banks, David (Davy) Ribault and Merrill Poulnot are trying to revive their stale relationship and commit to marriage, and Rawson Steele, a slick developer claiming to be related to a historic town hero arrives in town and begins buying up property. 

     Davy isn't fooled by Steele's smooth charm and is suspicious of the stranger's romantic-looking conversations with Merrill. When David agrees to an unusual 4:30 a.m appointment outside of town with Steele, he hopes for a confrontation. But Steele is a no-show, and at the time of the appointment everyone in the town suddenly disappears, removed entirely from our space and time to a featureless isolated village. 

     Something just lifted everybody in town—including Merrill, her fanatical father, and her kid brother—out of this space and time and dropped them in a mysterious new place. The question is where. Davy searches desperately for Merrill, but all seems lost because Steele is in the other village with Merrill. Kit Reed's Where is spooky, unsettling speculative fiction.

                        MY SUMMARY AND REVIEW                         
     The story alternates between the displaced citizens' terrified responses to their captivity and Davy's frantic efforts to avoid roadblocks and redneck guards/looters to get back to Kraven. Reed tells the story from a variety of perspectives, using a first-person voice for chapters told by Merrill, her brother, and her father, and a third-person voice for the chapters told from David's perspective. Most of the Poulnots' chapters take place in the weird dimension where 100 Kraven citizens find themselves early one morning after an earth-rumbling green flash. So, we get to peek into the minds of four of the main characters, but we view the seemingly villainous Steele only through the eyes of others, making him even more sinister because we receive no reliable firsthand knowledge about him or his motives.

     Davy is a commitment-phobic architect who grew up in Kraven and has been in a long relationship with Merrill that seems to be in an extended holding pattern. When Steele comes to town and appears to make a play for her, David reacts with angry jealousy and then guilt when he realizes that his own actions—especially their huge argument the night before the disaster—may have driven Merrill into Steele's arms. As David frantically works his way back to Kraven to search for Merrill, he replays the events of his life and vows to be a better man for her.

     Merrill's emotions are stretched thin, but that's the way it's been all her life. Her horrible father has abused her sexually (or tried to) and she has had to move out, leaving her vulnerable younger brother, Ned, behind. Even though she constantly checks on Ned and hires a woman to care for him, she is riddled with guilt over leaving him. As Merrill and Ray, one of Kraven's leading citizens, team up to figure out where they are and what's going on, she falls into an angst-filled meditation on her life: her rocky romance with Davy, her troubled relationship with her father, and her overwhelming desire to protect Ned. She loves Davy, but also feels drawn to Steele. In the early days after her displacement, she yearns for Davy, but those feelings are gradually overcome by her need to figure out her new environment. When Steele finally shows himself, all bets are off, and her emotions take yet another swing. 

    Ned is a fourteen-year-old who has lost himself in the world of computer gaming. He hates his father, is ambivalent about his sister, and misses his mother, who left the family when he was quite young. When Ned is pulled out of his gaming world and dropped into the new dimension, he is consumed with anger that he can't finish the game that he was about to win for his gaming team. Those team members are his only true friends, even though he has never met any of them in person. To Ned, his on-line friends are more real and more comforting than his real-world family, and he has a tough time coming to grips with the fact that he has lost that connection. At one point, he thinks, "Maybe it's like this in Gaijin Samurai, i.e., on Level 300 you lose your team, you lose your bearings, you end up with nobody to rely on and nothing to fight with except yourself and the great mess of stuff you know about, useless facts earthling around inside your head. Is this place…even real life, or is this the first level of a new, harder game I might not win?"

     Merrill's father, Hampton Poulnot, is a Faulkneresque, southern-Gothic figure who views himself as the leader of his people: "This is my time…Me, the new Moses, this close to leading them out of the desert….Understand, I am Hampton Calhoun Poulnot of the Poulnot family out of Charleston and Kraven Island and nobody takes that away from me! I will go forth, and my people will rise up!…Then my people and I will march out and get Them or I or He who extracted us and dumped us here, and we will get out of this place and I will get even, no matter who or what i have to destroy." Hampton is a bitter old man who has perfected his duo-personality: upstanding leader and fair-minded judge in public, and mean-spirited, abusive alcoholic behind the closed doors and shuttered windows of his family home.

    The unlucky Kravenites' new "home" is a barren, all-white town that is laid out exactly like Kraven. "Sand gusts into the bleak enclosure where we—fell? Landed in this compound, enclave, porcelain basin set down in a desert, contained in this glossy, bleached out—what? Dropped into a square of gleaming, featureless buildings in a dead desert town where nothing grows, shaken and muttering, most of us, we try to locate ourselves…." During the day, the temperatures are burning hot, and at night they are icy cold, so after the first day, everyone huddles in their air-conditioned houses, wearing the white scrubs that are provided daily and eating the food that appears three times a day via a kitchen dumb waiter. There are no electronics, no clocks, no books, no calendars, nothing but the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter. "White shutters on every window closed tight. The blank of the white buildings around the empty plaza are white, and the grainy white sidewalks lead out to white, white houses laid out like blocks on a Monopoly board with no colors and no printing and no squares so you can tell whether you're moving, just the bleached streets spreading out to the cement rim surrounding, as white and regular as a ring of false teeth without the gums or the grooves between. Even the barrier dune beyond is smooth and perfect, like a giant potter threw a porcelain bowl to put us in and the wheel stopped." After two near-riots on the first day, the group turns passive, huddling in their snug houses, "secured against the elements, everything we need supplied so we'll forget our wants."

     The plot is a Twilight Zone mash-up that combines the hair-trigger mob violence of episode 22, ("Monsters Are Due on Maple Street") and the "dumped-in-a-strange-place-and-can't-get-out" angst of episode 79 ("Five Characters in Search of an Exit") and episode 150 ("Stopover in a Quiet Town"). (Note: The SyFy Channel runs Twilight Zone episodes as part of its regular programming schedule.) You may also be reminded of TV series like Lost and Wayward Pines. The story also brings to mind myths and legends about abandoned ships at sea, like the Mary Celeste, and abandoned villages like Roanoke. There is even a touch of George Orwell's Big Brother in the anonymous electronic voice that directs the terrified, but strangely obedient, group where to go and what to do next. 

     Reed masterfully sets up this mystery and allows the characters to marinate in their uncomfortable emotions and strange circumstances, but she waits too long to begin providing clues to what is happening, and her ending is not so much ambiguous as underdeveloped. It's as if she put all of her efforts into creating the plot hook and developing the characters and then wrote herself into a corner that she couldn't (or, at least, didn't) fully explore, leaving this reader frustrated and unsatisfied. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the story immensely, right up until the very end. I just wish that the ending had provided more answersmore substance. 

     One last word: The following is a quotation from Russell Letson's review of this book on Locus Online in which he discusses the connection between the novel Where and the short story "Military Secrets" that Reed has appended to the novel: "What would seem to drive both Where and ‘‘Military Secrets’’ is not ‘‘what might happen if we had a machine that could do X?’’...but ‘‘what would it feel like to have inexplicable Y happen to you?’’ Or, from the writer’s-technique side: ‘‘What narrative or dramatic situation can best represent emotional and psychological complex Z?’’ If that is the case, then Where, How, By Whom, and even Why matter much less than That: the naked fantastic. Where possesses what the most haunting dreams do: the relentless combination of actuality and impossibility, of an awareness of the impossible-true." If you accept Letson's "dream" option, perhaps the ending isn't quite so unsatisfying. I did feel as if I was reading someone's fascinating, but surreal, dreamone that jumps from one disconnected scene to another and then just stops.

     To read an excerpt from Where, click HERE to to go to the book's page and click on the cover art.

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