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.