I’m not sure what to make of Zachary Thomas Dodson’s “Illuminated Novel” Bats of the Republic; in fact, I’m not sure that there is anything to make of it. It was a contender in the Tournament of Books in 2016, and it’s taken me this long to get my hands on a copy of it (courtesy of the Bandersnatch). And on paper (on a computer screen), it’s everything I want in a book: beautifully designed, skipping between textual forms (handwritten notes, 1880s romance novel, pulp science fiction), dabbling in and out of some of my favourite genres (steampunk, SF), steeped in paranoia and mystery.
But, as with a lot of novels that play with the idea of the book and the idea of text in this way, I’m not sure that there’s anything of substance behind it, that Dodson actually has anything to say. It’s 2018; it’s not enough now just to point out that texts are unstable and unreliable. We know.
So: Bats of the Republic contains two narratives. The first is The Sisters Gray, that 1880s romance novel, the story of Elswyth Gray and her lover Zadock Thomas, who’s been tasked with delivering a vital letter to a faraway general. (Zadock’s letters to Elswyth and his drawings of wildlife are interspersed throughout the book.) The second is The City-State, a retro-SF novel of the 22nd century starring Zeke Thomas and his partner Eliza, living in a dystopia in which paper records of every citizen’s conversations are kept in a vast Vault, private paperwork – including writing materials – is banned, and the people of the titular city-state live in fear of the people who live in the barren wastes beyond the walls.
The book’s gimmick, basically, is that each text is contained within the other. The City-State appears within The Sisters Gray as the work of Elswyth’s dead mother; and The Sisters Gray is given to The City-State’s Eliza by her father. Which is real? One, both or neither?
I mean: yes, that sounds cool and interesting. But Dodson really does nothing with the question, except double down on it at the book’s end, when the reader is invited to open an envelope which may contain the letter Zadock has been tasked with delivering, or the letter that Zeke has been keeping illegally in his home. I won’t spoil its contents, given that wanting to know what they are is kind of the engine of the book, but, suffice to say: I found them pretty disappointing.
I think the problem, here, is that form and content aren’t really working together. The destabilising work of the book is largely left to its design, which is intended to call attention to the book as a physical object (The Sisters Gray, for instance, has been pierced by a bullet-hole in an incident mentioned earlier in the book), and simultaneously to undermine the idea of the printed book and the Word as authoritative. (Handwriting becomes important in The City-State, for instance, when paper used by the state to record conversations becomes a medium for subversive personal notes. And Zadock’s notes to Elswyth, part of the Sisters Gray timeline but not part of that novel, become ever more unhinged from reality and the rationality of the 1880s text.) But when you actually read the two fictional novels, you find you’re reading a bad 1880s romance novel and a bad pulpy SF novel. We can argue that the prose is deliberately clunky and the plots deliberately melodramatic; that they’re genre pastiche. But that doesn’t make them any more fun to read.
And despite the paraphernalia of the book design and the various textual gimmicks, the actual texts are deeply conventional – unlike something like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, in which form and content are both experimental, indeed inextricable, and so destabilise each other. This means that Bats of the Republic is really all surface: sound and fury signifying not much. It’s a beautiful object, but that’s all it is; its ideas about text potentially intriguing, but ultimately shallow.