Bats of the Republic

BatsDescribed on the cover as “An Illuminated Novel,” Bats of the Republic is a visual feast. Pages with lime-green accents are followed by sepia-toned pages of handwriting and sketches. Some pages looked like scanned images from an old book, there’s a whole section of white type on a dark background, and every now and then a map turns up. It’s fun to look at, but is it fun to read?

The green pages of the book are set in a future version of Texas where people’s every move is monitored. The material in these pages consists largely of what appear to be transcripts of recorded conversations. Some sort of crisis a few generations back has caused people to gather in a handful of cities according to life stages. The people of Texas are in their young adulthood, and their goal is to find a Pair so they can reproduce. Zeke and Eliza are one such pair. Zeke comes from a prominent family, and because the government passes along hereditary lines, his grandfather’s death makes him a likely candidate for the Senate, although his cousin Bic wants the job more than Zeke does. Eliza was made a Grey (or orphan) when her father left her, and she works in the city’s archives. Henry Bartle, Eliza’s father, is also secretly working in the archives, and he notes the importance of the material there:

I thought there were principles. Rules to govern which facts should endure and which should dissolve into dust. But now I see my criteria were arbitrary. I chose objects or moments, and they became real. I draw worlds from crumbling stacks of paper, and they are given meaning through my careful attention. The designs of the Historian become history’s lessons.

These archives are central to the book’s society. Every written communication must be carboned and added to the archives, but as the book goes on, it’s clear that the archives are neither complete nor reliable. And the way the materials are arranged, even within this book, guide readers toward certain interpretations that may not be correct.

Another storyline in the novel focuses on the Grey Sisters, characters in what look like scanned pages from an old-fashioned novel. These sisters live in 19th-century Chicago. The eldest sister, Elswyth, is being courted by a man named Zadock Thomas, but Elswyth’s father considers him unsuitable, so he sends him west to prove his worth by delivering an important letter. Zadock’s letters to Elswyth, complete with sketches, forms a large portion of the book.

These two threads connect in multiple ways, some of which are clear early on, but others of which are only gradually revealed. Once the complete picture is revealed, it proves to be entirely impossible, but I think that’s intentional. What I can’t decide is whether it’s meant to be a mere mind-bender or whether it’s just meta-trickery. Either way, I don’t mind that it doesn’t work. It’s cleverly done. On a big-picture level, I found the book’s construction successful.

What’s less clever and more frustrating is in the details. Much of the book is just boring, especially in the middle third, after the basic rules of the book’s world have been laid out and before the story starts moving. I nearly gave up in boredom, thinking that this book was just about the look of it. Luckily, I picked up on a clue as to the big picture that got me to read on. Still, it was hard to focus on some of these narratives. Zadock’s journal was particularly dull, and, with the sometime exception of the Grey sisters, the characters are almost all underdeveloped. Zeke’s motivations and desires shift from one page to the next, depending on what’s helpful to the plot at that moment. And toward the end, when the story picks up speed, it moves too quickly and some of the characters’ movements appear impossible.

I wonder, though, if that impossibility in the details is meant to be there, just as the big-picture impossibility is. Zeke even makes note of it at one point, when a character is suddenly in front of him. We hear again and again that the material in the archives is being altered, and the transcripts we’re supposedly reading contain material that would never appear in such a document. Are the inconsistencies and glitches part of the design, or are they signs of undisciplined plotting? I don’t know, but the fact that the question even makes sense tells me there’s something more here than meets the eye. It’s just not clear how much more there is.

But regardless of how deep the paradoxes go, I still think this book could have been trimmed considerably. It is a beautiful book to look at, and Dodson does pretty well at making the visual design integral to the story. Design alone isn’t enough to make boring material less boring, but there was enough of interest here to keep me turning pages.

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12 Responses to Bats of the Republic

  1. Victoria says:

    The archivist in me was like ‘archives! Gimme gimme gimme’ but then I’m also so easily bored. I always think that you have far more patience than me. Now it’s a conundrum as to whether I should put this one on the wishlist or not. The archives themes do sound pretty integral though, and maybe it’s relevant to my archivesy PhD and the chapter I’m writing at the moment on evidential values?

    • Teresa says:

      It is a fun book to look at and worth it if you can get a library copy. I’m still not sure, though, if there’s anything there beyond the gimmick of it. I’m kind of hoping it makes it through a couple of rounds in the Tournament of Books, so the commenters there can weigh in.

  2. Lisa says:

    I had the same archival reaction as Victoria, and then as I read more I thought, hmmmmm. This definitely sounds like a library book rather than one I will rush out to buy. I’m also a little curious about the Texas setting, even if it’s set in the future.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad I was able to get a library copy, as I wouldn’t have wanted to spend money on it, even through I enjoyed a lot of it. There’s some Texas history in the story that you might appreciate more than I did, too. (I just don’t know Texas history well enough to know if Dotson was making stuff up.)

  3. Stefanie says:

    I got an archive thrill too and your description of the book had me this close to stopping reading your review and placing a hold on the book at my library. I am glad I read to the end before doing that. I’m a bit impatient with boring spots in books lately. Sounds like it has good potential though, too bad the actual execution doesn’t seem to meet expectations.

    • Teresa says:

      If you’re able to get a library copy, it’s worth doing, even if just to page through it and see how the parts come together. That aspect of it is really clever, and the boring parts of the story don’t last long (and are pretty skimmable) if you do decide to read it.

  4. I can see this being my first library check out in a gazillion years.

  5. It’s always tricky with books like these where the design and look of the books is really beautiful, because it’s verrry rare for the story to live up to the visuals. ALAS. I love illustrated books in any case, but I’d love to see one occasionally that’s as good as a book as it is beautiful as an object.

    • Teresa says:

      The only one I can think of offhand where the content lived up to the look was Nox by Anne Carson. But even so, I like to see writers try this kind of thing.

  6. aartichapati says:

    Oh, I wish what Jenny said was not so, but it so often is! I was so excited by your description of the book (until you got to the part where you said it was boring, anyway). So much style over substance, I suppose.

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