And why is THAT, you wonder?
Well, for me the story needs to be so original or told in such a way that I can’t anticipate how the ending will arrive. This isn’t to say that I can’t predict elements of said climax because I think we’re all good about foretelling doom if and when we see it in the cards; but how this doom rears its head – be it peacefully, be it dramatically, be it all covered in blood and brains – is the gift every author should grant every reader. The best surprises are the ones we can’t see coming, even if we’re led to believe we were going to San Francisco yet arrive in Washington, DC.
That’s a very tall order, but it’s one Max Brooks demonstrates his chops for with “Devolution: A Firsthand Account Of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre.”
The plot: Kate Holland and her husband Dan have left the big city life in favor of proving that the sustainable commune life truly is achievable. Taking up residence in Greenloop, the couple find themselves surrounding by tall trees as well as an assortment of equally tall characters – similar big city transplants sharing this grand adventure. But when the outside world throws their tiny existence into chaos unexpectedly, this tiny village will need to band together and learn some very hard lessons if they’re to survive what Mother Nature has in store for them. And it isn’t just the effects of a volcanic eruption … it’s also proof positive that Bigfoot exists!
Stop right there: I know what you’re thinking. Bigfoot? Really? Do I really need another New Age yarn postulating that Bigfoot is real?
Brooks presents the impossible here by structuring his tale via the surviving and recovered transcripts of Kate’s journal, a personal project meant to help her find the peace she’s always found elusive. From time to time, motion pictures and television shows attempt to do the same, building a story around the semi-popular ‘found footage’ device; while audiences can be hot and cold to such trickery, I’ll admit that this structure is probably a greater Achilles’ Heel for Devolution than is the inclusion of Bigfoot, so let me explain briefly …
Now, as a man, let me proudly proclaim that I’m certainly no expert on the female mind: given that roughly ninety percent of Devolution is told via a woman’s surviving journal entries, I’ll admit that the novel gave me incredible frustration in the narrative set-up. Kate Holland is no easy cookie to follow: she’s clearly unhappy with her life, her situation, her circumstances, and the fact that she’s ‘journaling’ her way through her daily existence at the advice of an unseen yet occasionally referenced to therapist, I couldn’t quite see eye-to-eye with her through so very much of the first one hundred pages or so. Honestly (and forgive the sexism of this), I kept thinking, “What gives with this lady? She’s in a pretty decent relationship. She’s in a pretty interesting position in her life. Why she’s going on about this and that and the other in such a negative fashion?”
Here’s the dirty secret that the second half of the novel taught me: I don’t think you, as a reader, were ever really supposed to identify with the lady Holland. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that maybe – just maybe – you weren’t even meant to like her. Otherwise, the second half of the book – where the real meat and potatoes of the story gets interesting – might not work if you did.
Again, keep in mind: this is told by ‘journaling.’ By design, that means that nothing here is being divulge “as is.” It’s all being told by the same mind in close retrospect: she revisits her day at the end of it (or, at least, that’s my suspicion), and thus she can employ perhaps more hindsight if her various adventures had been told in a conventional book format. This way, author Brooks can conceal what each of us predicts is coming for this “firsthand account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre” in a way that gives it greater impact in the climax. Without spoiling it too much, let me say this: there’s more than one reason Kate couldn’t be journaling after the said massacre, and if you’re reading closely then maybe you’ll understand why the tale ends how it does when it does. It’s a very clever sleight of hand – the kind of twist made famous with television programs like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone or its inspired counterpart The Outer Limits.
Come the end of Devolution, I was convinced that I wasn’t really supposed to like the Kate Holland of the first half; in fact, I could argue that Brooks’ may’ve intended his readers to turn up their nose just a bit at this somewhat perfect princess finding real problems in her somewhat idyllic life. She’s the priss. She’s the prude. She’s trying to give her life greater relevance by dissecting the pieces of her day in, day out drudgery for meaning. When life is meant to be lived, Kate’s stuck on stupid looking for ‘definition.’ But when something she’s never looked for comes lumbering out of the woodwork, she slowly but surely leaves that psychological hunger behind and gets to the business of ‘surviving.’ Given that it all unfolds via these journal entries, it’s all a very calculated gamble on Brooks’ part … but one I found rewarding in the big finish.
For those curious? No. This isn’t World War Z. Max has already written that, and this is something completely different. Yes, it’s told with a similar mechanism – but therein the similarities end. World War Z was impressive in scope; by contrast, Devolution is all about the darkness inside the human mind, though you have to be very, very patient for it to unfold the way it does.