The Doloriad, Missouri Williams (MCD x FSG Originals 978-0-37460-508-7, $17.00, 240pp, tp) March 2022.
Missouri Williams’s debut novel, The Doloriad, comes close to pipping Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone as the most disturbing book I’ve read this year (note, I said close; Jawbone still holds the crown). It’s a post-apocalyptic story where an unknown cataclysm, possibly environmental (though it’s never made clear) has wiped out humanity. Well, almost. In a deserted city (the infrequent place names suggest somewhere in the Czech Republic, perhaps Prague), a large family born of incest eke out a hard-scrabble existence. Ruling over them is the Matriarch, scrutinising her children and grandchildren from the dirty window in her apartment. She has become convinced there are others out there and that together they will establish a new society under her guidance. To that end, the Matriarch offers up her daughter, Dolores (described as ‘‘droopy, fat’’ and ‘‘legless’’) for marriage, ordering ‘‘Uncle’’ to transport the girl in a wheelbarrow deep into the forest. But when Dolores, confused and afraid, somehow crawls her way back to the encampment, the Matriarch realises they are alone – a fact that sends a ripple of discontent and anger through her children, especially her eldest son, Jan, the one amongst the siblings who believes he should lead the family.
If I had to summarise The Doloriad in five words or less, it would be ‘‘the perversion of persistence.’’ Although they have conflicting views on the matter, both the Matriarch and Jan believe humanity has a future. As such, the Matriarch sends Dolores into the forest, while Jan forces his siblings and their children to work the fields, despite the lack of rain. And this persistence, an unwillingness to accept that humanity is facing extinction, leads to acts of violence and cruelty. Dolores, viewed as a symbol of failure, is savagely beaten by her siblings and then raped by Jan, who also brutally murders another sister, Marta.
While Williams’s depiction of ‘‘the perversion of persistence’’ is extreme, I couldn’t help but draw a connection to our recent mini-cataclysm, the pandemic, and the persistent message from corporations and Government that we return to the office. For those of us who do go back, surrounded by so much emptiness, it’s clear that the age of the office is slowly grinding to an end (it may still take another decade) and that those in power, just like the Matriarch and Jan, have yet to accept the inevitable.
As bleak as all that sounds, the sheer quality of Williams’s prose makes The Doloriad an extraordinary reading experience. The novel is narrated as a stream of consciousness, shifting fluidly between the perspectives of the Matriarch, Jan, Dolores, and other siblings like Agathe, one of the younger sisters who suffers from bouts of epilepsy and has a bottomless hatred for Dolores. Like Ottessa Moshfegh, Williams doesn’t shy away from the infirmities of the body or the acts of violence that punctuate the story. But there are also these astonishing moments of profundity, beautifully rendered observations that speak to a deeper truth about humanity’s autonomic urge to survive at all costs.
The departed gods had left their task incomplete; they had neglected to wipe away these last remnants of their great error, and in the vacuum of their intention these things had bred and clung on to a meagre existence in a world more inhospitable than ever simply because ‘‘nature hateth emptiness.’’
Threaded through all this is a rich vein of surrealism. There’s the schoolteacher, one of the three adults who survived the cataclysm, who spends his days muttering Greek poetry to a class of dozing, addled children and his night worshipping a mound of cloth inhabited by thousands of moths, who he believes will eventually lead him to salvation. Stranger than this is the one TV show available to the encampment, a cartoon starring Thomas Aquinas (yes, the Thomas Aquinas) and his ‘‘trusty little sheep’’ who wander the countryside solving problems where they encounter them. Some of the best moments in the novel involve a recount of the episodes – especially one involving a cheerleader – that grow increasingly violent and disturbing until someone yells out: GET AQUINAS IN HERE!
In a publishing environment where there’s a glut of post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s always surprising and gratifying to discover a novel, like The Doloriad, that is not only wholly original but also provides a unique, albeit grim, angle on the human condition.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.
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