The gym in which I waste time after wearing a tie all day has a weight room on the second floor with a balcony overlooking the entryway cafe. Today while men in wife beaters posed like Jesus distributing fish over bench-pressing yoga pants, a mockingbird flew in from downstairs and became trapped, tapping high at floor-to-ceiling windows, bashing its head against the sunroof, railing and railing against the glass then landing to gather itself on light fixtures and girders before setting off again in desperation. I was in there for an hour mostly trying to figure out how I could get out of wearing a tie every day until I die, and the bird was still trapped when I left. Stupid little thing. If only it had flown down a level instead of constantly trying to go up, it might have saved itself.
THIS IS A POST FOR THOSE WHO HAVE READ NOS4A2 AND ARE STILL THINKING ABOUT IT. MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT, GO AWAY.
If you’re trying to decide whether the book is for you, a spoiler-free review is over here.
I don’t read book jackets. Don’t believe in ’em. A book should do a good enough job introducing itself in its own time, and I don’t need any promises of late-game fireworks to keep me reading if the words are put together well. So I didn’t read any kind of summary or pitch for NOS4A2 before I dove in. Not even the back cover.
I did, however, see the front cover. It gave me the impression that I was about to read a red-and-white book. Something bloody and dirty and clean and sharp. Something tasting, perhaps, like Darkly Dreaming Dexter, with cold, splattered violence filtered through a tidy narrator. I assumed from the title that I would be dealing with vampires of a sort, but beyond that, I knew nothing.
NOS4A2 isn’t a red-and-white book at all. It’s blue and white. NOS4A2 is octane on the rocks, a cool burn. There’s fire, yes, but not enough fire to burn out that big blue sky we see so much more frequently. NOS4A2 is an unexpected vehicle that runs on a human heart. A useful image, I suppose, as Hill’s favorite pastime is screwing with your expectations and emotions.
One thing Hill does well is the ‘character twist,’ in which we’re led to feel a certain way about a character before having the perspective flipped around on us, forcing us to reconsider our opinions. Examples include both of Vic’s parents (in opposite directions) and arguably Vic herself as she becomes increasingly self-destructive.
Hill used this heartstring fake-out to great effect in Horns, but NOS4A2 is a more nuanced and complex novel. It seems, somehow, built with more exact tools.
For instance (and hopefully without spoiling anything), Horns plays out pretty straight with the characters falling into the roles we expect them to. NOS4A2, however, fucks with us a bit. We’re introduced to the characters one by one, and those of us who haven’t read the back of the book are actively trying to figure out who our main character is. When we meet Vic, she’s a child, and we learn quickly that our Big Bad Baldie is a serial child-snatcher.
“Okay,” I thought, “I think I can see how this is going to play out.”
I was expecting Vic, who lives in the kind of increasingly volatile family that Manx claims to target, to cycle up in Manx’s kid-thievery queue and get snatched. However, Vic McQueen is no ordinary girl. This is a kid with a bridge and an attitude. So through great courage and strength of heart, our heroine Vic would turn the tables on her would-be kidnapper and tunnel out of Christmas Land through a series of dark trials and star-crossed turns of fortune, allowing for the escape of all of Manx’s previous victims and learning a valuable lesson about–wait a second, did Vic just turn seventeen in that jump between chapters? How the hell is Manx supposed to snatch her now? Well I was going to go to sleep after that page, but it looks like that’s not an option now. THANKS JOE.
While expectations keep us turning the page, the gems that keep our eyes crawling down the paragraphs are Hill’s sniper-fire diction and layered resonance. Hill seems to understand that the power of language doesn’t hide inside long, elevated prose, but rather between just two careful words and a handful of revisited images.
“Rabies red” is a word pairing that struck me as particularly risky. Hill uses it to describe a crow’s eyes. Rabies is viral disease, of course, and can’t really be said to be any color. But that doesn’t stop Hill, and somehow that disjunctive, lateral pairing creates the exact right color of red (like a bead of blood) and connotes the kind of wild, sick menace the crow represents.
It’s risky decisions like that–with the stretch and pull of language–that help elevate Hill’s work above pulp commercial fiction. The novelist is quickly carving out a home in that twilight world between commercial and literary, and in my opinion he’s managing to snare the best of both landscapes: all the romp and suspense without the pretension.
Theme-wise, Hill doesn’t write didactically. Rather than scribbling to impart a pre-constructed idea to his audience, Hill–and this is pure conjecture on my part–seems to explore his own works for meaning, hashing out resonance through what I would have to guess is copious rewriting.
A brief aside, but hang with me.
The writers of Arrested Development (haven’t finished the fourth season yet, so I’m leaving it out) created a show renowned for its heavy use of inside jokes–played straight, reverted, subverted, echoed, and reappropriated.
What we call inside jokes in comedy, we might call resonance elsewhere. The writers of Arrested Development wrote and rewrote and rewrote their scripts, often casting several episodes ahead or full seasons backwards. They kept finding and reusing the same elements, and it didn’t take long for the show to build its own unique world from the resonating structures.
Hill similarly builds a library of images and ideas, a database of scrabble tiles, ecstasy tablets, gingerbread, bikes, bridges, snow, bats, mazes, static, and fire. By revisiting and reusing these images over and over, by combining them in new ways and encountering them through new characters, Hill unearths theme rather than exposit it.
Themes, then. What is NOS4A2 about? Well, it’s a “matter of speed and emptiness,” in Vic’s words. It’s a story about the creative process, perhaps even about the process of writing a novel, which Hill depicts as a dangerous and tenuous journey right through the bat-infested interior of one’s own soul. The Shorter Way is an analogy for venturing out on a creative project, and while it’s easy for a child, it becomes subject to doublethink and doubt as an adult. NOS4A2 is about how fiction, like Shorter Way Bridges, connect us to places different from where we are now, connect us to people different than who we are now. And for better or worse, we stop being who we are now.
That’s the top-level idea, in my opinion. To hone this notion, Hill even goes out of his way to deactivate Freudian connotations that readers might connect to the both phallic and yonic Shorter Way Bridge. This is a necessary step, perhaps, since we seem very eager to read sex into places where sex may or may not be. But there is another level to the piece that feels a bit more ‘discovered.’
Manx is no normal vampire. He doesn’t feed off blood, but rather the unhappiness of children. The curious side-effect of this emotional exsanguination is that the children become icy, sociopathic monsters. In effect, Hill draws an inverse relationship between empathy and happiness.
This is a very interesting idea. When the children are unhappy, they are capable of empathy. Indeed, perhaps most of their unhappiness comes from them being able to feel the unhappiness of those around them (see Wayne). Empathy makes us human and allows us to engage each other. It is also the very engine that allows fiction (or bridges) to work. When Manx eats their unhappiness, empathy goes with it as if the two are inextricably tied. The children become unrelentingly happy and completely incapable of understanding another person’s pain. They are sadistic, selfish, hungry monsters.
Perhaps, then, happiness is not necessarily a high good. Hill seems to be driving at the idea that, while happiness may be well and good in the moment, a moral system that embraces happiness as a high goal is ultimately a kind of hedonism. A theme park land of eternal Christmas. In Hill, empathy may be the source of unhappiness, but when drained of it, people become terrifying, hollow, happy monsters. That’s a scary thought.
As a final item of note, some readers may have noticed a collection of familiar elements cropping up in NOS4A2. Pieces of Stephen King including Derry, Midworld, Pennywise, and Shawshank are all sprinkled across the pages. Even stealthier, “Where children flew or floated, he forgot the difference,” echoes from It, and “Vic had never been what anyone would call a ‘crying woman,'” echoes a refrain from 11/22/63, which is something I would have never noticed if 11/22/63 hadn’t been the book I read right before NOS4A2.
By the way, if you’re reading this, Joe: your dad can claim that the story “is just a story” by having his protagonist explicate a short story that way, but you tell him John from the Internet calls bullshit and says there’s meaning in there whether he likes it or not.
Where was I?
Right, so when I started noticing these references, I wondered why Hill was creating inside his father’s universe. He already seemed to be building his own universe, after all, what with these Creatives possessing the diverse abilities to actualize their needs and desires.
As I read, I realized Hill wasn’t continuing his father’s material or working within it. Rather, Hill’s position is that imagined things are as actual as physical things. Hill is constructing a realm in which all fictions can be real, and the works of Stephen King are a subset of this meta-reality. I look forward to seeing what direction(s) he continues this meditation, because it seems like it would allow for some Gaiman-esque crossovers and pastiches.
So yeah, them’s my thoughts on NOS4A2. Let me know what you thought, ye internet wanderer. One of the most important parts of fiction, after all, is talking about it.
I can confidently recommend NOS4A2 to anyone who has ever disappointed themselves or loved another human being or possessed at least 6 creative cells in their entire body.
Plotwise, I’m hesitant to discuss much of what happens in NOS4A2. I went into the book knowing nothing. I didn’t even skim the jacket flap. I read Joe Hill’s Horns last year and enjoyed it so much that I dove into NOS4A2 without so much as a foam tube or pair of arm floaties. Because of this, a lot of the “what happens next” excitement hinged on me having no idea how the disparate characters were fated to collide… a fate I later learned is pretty much revealed right away on the dust jacket.
So if you haven’t read NOS4A2 yet and I’ve managed to catch you before you’ve read anything about it and you fit the qualifications listed above for someone to whom I would recommend this book, do yourself a serious favor: blindfold yourself, drive to Barnes & Noble, feel your way to to the H section of fiction and purchase a copy, then walk outside and burn the cover before removing the blindfold.
That’s actually kind of a shame because the cover is rather beautiful, so here’s an image so you don’t miss anything:
Judging from the cover, I thought it might be about vampires and a road trip and perhaps mosquitoes. The image has a sterile-yet-gritty feel to it, like the promo material for HBO’s Dexter, so I thought I’d be getting something vaguely similar. Moreover, Horns was a decidedly ‘red’ book, all seared through with hellfire and passion, so it’d make sense that NOS4A2 would continue the tradition.
I was very wrong.
NOS4A2 isn’t a red book at all. It’s blue. Blue and white. Like snow and diesel fuel and a cold bowl of sky. In the book’s own words, it’s “a matter of speed and emptiness,” which I suppose doesn’t tell you much about what the story’s about.
Well, fuck you. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about. The process of discovery was too delicious for me, and I’m not about to ruin it.
If you absolutely need to know–like if gunmen are holding your wife hostage until you give them a comprehensive analysis of Joe Hill’s most recent novel or something–I’ll be doing a spoiler-drenched critique(?) over here you can check out, but for this post, it’s going to be super vague and tip-toey.
NOS4A2 is a story about a man named Charlie Manx, an alleged pedophile who is in a coma and whose story is told through flashback. It’s also about The Brat, a little girl who by day goes as Vic McQueen, and who has a special talent for finding things. It’s also about a doughy pinhead of a man named Bing, who loves Christmas more than anything in the whole wide world. Those are the pieces as I got them; you figure out how they fit together.
(Pro Tip: read the book.)
If you can’t tell, this is an overwhelmingly positive review. Hill is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors due to his ability to tell an intriguing story without sacrificing multifaceted characters or thematic literary elements. In an industry that sometimes seems hellbent on making you pick one of the three, Hill is proving to be an uncompromising bastion of eating cake and having it too.
The only negative things I can think to say regards the perhaps overly-blunt naming conventions that tie characters to their referential objects. Bing, for instance, whose defining characteristic (among others) is an unhealthy preoccupation with the yuletide season, is named after Bing Crosby of White Christmas fame. Our heroine McQueen’s name can’t help but conjure the image of ol’ live-fast Steve jumping his motorcycle over a Nazi fence, and lo and behold a bike forms the linchpin around which Vic’s whole life pivots.
But if anything, you might argue that these more obvious connections exist to encourage a perhaps pulp-jaded reader to look for deeper ones. And the deeper connections definitely exist. At its core, NOS4A2 is both an examination of the creative process and a crusade against any doctrine of happiness as virtue, but I’ll get into that in my other, spoiler-rich review.
For now, I guess you’ll just have to take my word. NOS4A2 is an unpredictable, fresh, and merciless romp through a familiar scenario, and it has a beating heart the size of an internal combustion engine. It’d be a shame to leave it sitting on the shelf.
These are doodles from my notebook. I’ve found that drawing them actually helps me focus. I’m prone to fidgeting and daydreaming and existential spirit-questing, so the act of making these has become a kind of grounding ritual.
Plus, they remind me that not every detail has to be perfect. If you’re deliberate and consistent, the end result is solid. This is reassuring, because when I’m writing a novel, my tendency is to fuss over every crumb of diction. I’ve edited this post four times now.