Zachary Thomas Dodson’s debut novel is an easy book to admire, but it’s a tougher one to love. Following in the tradition of postmodernist metallurges of form like Mark Z. Danielewski, he’s fashioned a text that opens up into a variety of structures, playful but precise, with sweeping shifts in typographical format and layout. It evinces a graphophile’s love for the written word, rendered in a series of seemingly mimeographed handmade letters. It shines as an avatar of a different kind of book, even as the heart of the story remains at arm’s length. All the dazzling visual tricks on display serve as armor hiding an undercooked emotional core, the depths of which the author hasn’t quite figured out how to plumb.
Bats Of The Republic: An Illuminated Novel (note that even the subtitle works overtime to set it aside from your “average” book) is one of those outsize novels Sherman Alexie has referred to as “important white guy books”: large stories juggling time and space as they see-saw between far-flung characters dealing with weighty political and philosophical concepts. Starting in 2143, the narrative follows Zeke Thomas, the Texas-residing grandson of an esteemed senator in a government struggling to hold together the remnants of a collapsed civilization. A mysterious sealed letter from his grandfather triggers a mystery in which Zeke, his wife Eliza, and their friends and family all race to protect themselves against nefarious forces in the decaying city-state and solve the riddles of their pasts. Cut to 300 years earlier, where ancestor Zadock Thomas is embarking on a perilous mission to the same Texas landscape, on a mission to deliver a letter of his own, one that may hold the fate of the Texas Republic’s struggle with Mexico and the United States.
Nested between Zadock’s first-person account and Zeke’s third-person storyline lie a barrage of narrative devices, the largest (and most important) being a 19th century novel-within-the-novel, one that may hold the key to Zeke’s lineage. But there are also handwritten letters from Eliza to her friend, transcripts of voice calls recorded by an intrusive and paranoid governmental organization, and maps and illustrations made by the characters as their respective stories play out. All the structural fireworks make for great fun: Happening upon a frayed handwritten note, or a lovingly sketched image of a bat, gives the reader a sense they’re holding a beneficent Pandora’s box, the turn of a page forever releasing unexpected surprises on the other side. Additionally, the alternate-history collapse of America leads to charmingly inventive sources of electricity in Dodson’s world, mostly powered through fantastical steam-engine advancements. Bats Of The Republic feels like nothing so much as steampunk in book form—not the literary technique so much as the actual aesthetic, transmuted into a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption of a novel.
If only the busy story possessed similarly electric prose. At his best, Dodson possesses the soul of a Philip K. Dick disciple, wringing subtle yet charged meditations on identity and society out of a story that traffics in the paranoia of overreaching authority and the breakdown of the social compact. Yet he also seems to have appropriated some of Dick’s worst tendencies, as characters often make arbitrary or incoherent decisions, solely for the purpose of putting them into situations that can propel the narrative where it needs to go. Too often, these people seem less like fully realized beings and more like wind-up figures carrying out marching orders. Dodson fares better with his characters in centuries prior, wielding more fundamental desires—and more relatable personalities.
A sense of alienation plagues all of his characters. This is partly by design—the themes of lost connection and the struggle to understand oneself are essential to the story—but it goes beyond that. Nearly all seem to fall on the more detached side of the emotional-clarity spectrum. In one or several characters, this would be a broadening of the human palette; in everybody, it‘s a weakness of characterization. Luckily, the inventive design makes such an impact, the storylines which curlicue into irrelevance, and the clumsier plot machinations, are more easily dismissed. It’s the kind of book where a late-in-the-game addition of a character who only speaks in hackneyed phrases like, “Those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak,” simply comes across like part of the furniture. By the time actual magic starts appearing, it feels like it should’ve popped up sooner. If Bats Of The Republic shoots for profound spiritual resonance, it can be forgiven for only attaining a heady aesthetic head-trip.