Russell Letson reviews Kit Reed

Where, Kit Reed (Tor 978-0-7653-7982-5, $25.99, 236pp, hc) May 2015.

No single voice dominates Kit Reed’s Where, certainly not the kind of low-key Midwestern tone that Arnason gives to her Icelanders. Instead, the internal voices of Reed’s various viewpoint characters range from on-edge, to anxious, to frantic. These are people stretched thin by the tensions of family history and the weight of personal failings, and especially by a mind-boggling event: early one morning, everyone at home in the island village of Kraventown SC disappears, as if taken in mid-stride or -shave or -breakfast-bite. Local communications channels are down and police and the military cordon off access to the island, causing traffic jams and inspiring all manner of upset and speculation. Meanwhile, the vanished townsfolk find themselves in a strange, all-white replica of their village, dotted with surveillance cameras and surrounded by a blinding desert that is searingly hot by day and sub-arctic cold by night.

In the outside world, Davy Ribault is frantic not only because his lover Merrill Poulnot is among the missing but because he regrets matters left unsettled the night before, and he needs to the resolve the tensions and repair their relationship. The immediate cause of the rift was Davy’s personal and professional suspicions about slick Yankee real estate developer Rawson Steele, and Davy had left the island early in the morning to confront Steele about his business intentions for the town and his attentions to Merrill.

The story alternates between Davy’s efforts to evade the roadblocks and guards to get home and the Poulnot family’s trials in the white faux village, and both threads are salted with bits of back-story that help explain why these people were so wound up even before they found themselves in their bizarre situations. Merrill’s emotional life is driven by her relationship with her violent, alcoholic, whited-sepulcher of a father. Hampton Poulnot’s bullying and abuse drove away his wife (unless something worse happened to her), then drove away Merrill, and has caused his teenaged son Ned to take refuge in an immersive, interactive on-line video game, where he is not a beat-upon kid but the Hydra Destroyer, fighting monsters with the rest of his fighting team.

After a spasm of violent near-rioting, the hundred displaced Kraventowners subside into a stunned passivity, remaining inside their replica homes, accepting the meals and clean coveralls that appear daily. Only Merrill and Ray Powell, the town’s unofficial keeper of sense and sanity, are willing and able to go outside at night and explore the village – until Merrill meets up again with Rawson Steele, whose presence is more than anomalous. What they find does not answer questions about Where or Why or Who, but it is clear that this is not, as some fear, a supernatural event.

The literal and the metaphoric bleed into one another, starting, of course, with the landscape and extending to the social and psychological environments. The featureless structures of the village are as blank as an early-generation videogame environment. Ned sees

White shutters on every window closed tight…. 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’t tell whether you’re moving, just the bleached streets spreading out to the cement rim surrounding…. Even the barrier dune beyond it is smooth and perfect, like a giant potter threw a porcelain bowl to put us in and the wheel stopped.

Merrill sees it is as a trap: ‘‘Whoever did this to us built the compound with security and comfort in mind…. Uproot a group and while you’ve got them flailing and terrified, enclose them. Keep them clean and fed… so we’ll forget our wants.’’ And just a few pages later, out in the ordinary world, Davy looks at a perfectly restored plantation house and thinks that it looks like ‘‘one of those high-end resort islands where everything runs smoothly and nothing goes wrong.’’

The townspeople are also imprisoned inside themselves, by anger, hurt, jealousy, and craziness. The book has a large dose of Southern Gothic – Faulkner in 21st-century South Carolina. Kraventown and environs have held onto the past in the form not only of carefully preserved architecture but of family ties and rivalries and perquisites that go back to the Civil War. This side is clearest in Hampton, a violent, possessive, obsessive man who sees himself as Moses sidelined and ignored. His Faulknerian internal monologue, an entire chapter near the center of the book, combines half-crazed Old Testament wannabe-prophet and failed Confederate general.

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.

This book requires not so much a Spoiler Curtain as a Spoiler Matryoshka Doll. In fact, even a consideration of its genre identity might be a discussion too far. Nevertheless: Where sits along one of those inter-generic fault lines, or (to shift metaphors) it is contained in a literary Schrödinger box, waiting for some categorical function to collapse it into a definite condition of fantasy or science fiction or magic-realism or expressionism, or any number of half-sibling traditions and forms.

Allow me to approach cautiously. At the end of the book Reed appends ‘‘Military Secrets’’, the short story from which the novel grew and which, she writes, shares its world: children orphaned by warfare are singled out at school and put aboard a bus filled with similar orphans from across history. The story is only slightly less enigmatic than its longer sibling, and despite its initial appearance in Asimov’s, it does not feel quite like SF. Nor does it feel quite like a supernatural fantasy, which posits an agency that operates beyond or despite material physical laws. As with the white village of Where, everything about the gray bus says, ‘‘This is made; this operates according to the rules of the material world, however miraculous or impossible it might appear.’’

There is no sense of continuity of intelligibility between the ordinary and contrafactual worlds. Instead, it is reminiscent of the kind of uncanny tale that first appeared in the nineteenth century at the same time that both SF and what we now would call fantasy were evolving into distinct genres. It might be called the naked fantastic: not dressed up in half-believed or fully abandoned metaphysics or supernaturalism, not re-rigged and rationalized and metaphorically transformed into science fiction, but flat-out contrafactuality that somehow resonates with feelings, suspicions, fears, and desire, untethered to and uncushioned by any particular rationalizing framework.

What would seem to drive both Where and ‘‘Military Secrets’’ is not ‘‘what might happen if we had a machine that could do X?’’ (SF and some kinds of fantasy) 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.

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