Described 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.