Gabino Iglesias Reviews The Damage Done by Michael Landweber

The Damage Done, Michael Landweber (Crooked Lane Books 978-1643859477, $27.99, 352pp, hc) March 2022. Cover by Patrick Sullivan.

Michael Landweber’s The Damage Done is a gripping mosaic novel that explores the way violence towards each other seems to be part of our DNA and what would happen to the world if we suddenly found ourselves unable to be violent to one another. At once a narrative about many lives that intertwine together and a novel about big ideas that tackles topics like racism and misogyny, The Damage Done triumphs because it shows a lot of darkness while simultaneously imagining some interesting events and putting the human heart at the center of everything.

A white supremacist walks into a synagogue and opens fire on a room full of kids. Many bullets fly and tear through clothes…and the children giggle as the bullets softly tickle their bodies. No one dies. However, strange as that was, the miraculous event is far from the only weird thing happening in the world. The police can’t hit protesters. Murder attempts fail repeatedly. People who fight each other do little more than stumble around. A man tries to hit his wife and barely manages to bump his hand into her a few times. Suddenly, the world has changed and committing violent acts against others is impossible. However, that doesn’t keep people from trying, and suicide is unaffected. As people learn to navigate their new reality, violence, the thing that shaped our history, is no longer an option, but the need for it is still there.

The Damage Done follows a plethora of characters as the new reality affects their lives. A Black professor, husband, and father worries about his two young boys growing up Black in this country. A 15-year-old girl travels illegally into the US with her younger sister while fleeing gang violence in her home country. There is a young man whose brother was recently murdered by a local drug dealer. A woman stuck in an abusive relationship. A white supremacist obsessed with becoming either a hero or a martyr. These and other characters are at the center of the story, but after each of their chapters are shorter chapters, which Landweber titles ‘‘Excursus’’ followed by a letter, that add even more layers to the narrative as they discuss how the sudden change affects other people: a pope, a revolutionary, a president, a dictator, and others. While there is a lot going on, Landweber deftly balances all the characters and manages to give the novel a sense of cohesion, even as it moves back and forth in time to show the same events through different perspectives.

There is a lot to like in this novel. There is a lot of action but also many passages in which feelings and ideas occupy center stage. However, the best thing about it is how it works simultaneously on two very different levels. On the first, there is the story in which our everyday world changes in a day and alters absolutely everything. Bullets hang in mid-air. Knives thrown from a very close distance change their trajectory and clatter away without drawing blood. Punches die on their way to their target. People are yanked away from movie cars by unseen forces before they get hit. The list of bizarre events goes on an on, and it all injects a degree of the supernatural into an otherwise very feasible story.

The second level is very different, and is perhaps where Landweber shines most as a storyteller. This novel tackles topics like illegal migration, sexual and physical abuse, racism, misogyny, white supremacy, and gentrification. However, it manages to never sound preachy. Instead, the author exposes the realities of our world in ways that make readers see them for how truly awful they are, and then he wonders what would happen to all of that in a world in which violence is not an option.

Interesting thought experiments don’t necessarily translate into good novels, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. Between the bizarre/supernatural events, Landweber’s wide-ranging cast of characters, and the constant question of what happens when violence is no longer an option, The Damage Done is the kind of book that’s hard to put down and that sticks with you, percolating in your brain, long after you’ve turned the last page.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.

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