(Portland Oregon and Brooklyn, NY: Tin House Books, 2016)
When my brother, Chris, and I are in the mood for some good old fashioned apocalyptic prognosticating, we like to discuss the so-called Singularity. This idea, which has circulated ever more widely in the last two decades, is that mankind is on the brink of a technological quickening so great and far-reaching that it will alter the fundamentals of civilization. The world, as made new by rapid, exponential technological growth, will be unrecognizable to our humble 2016-selves. Social constructs thought eternal would perish; our understanding of the very nature of life would be so thoroughly challenged that nothing of our current notions of consciousness would survive. Truth itself would blur, reality become circumstantial. And presumably (we tell each other, starry eyed), great and powerful secrets will reveal themselves. It makes for a heck of a good story, one that Chris and I choose to explore over cold beer, in lazy wooden rocking chairs, staring out at the vast and ancient lake that is our summertime retreat.
It was in a similar state of abstract, the-sky-is-falling reverie that I absorbed Michael Helm’s dense, fascinating, and genre-defying new novel, After James. Helm’s primary concern in this work is not technology, yet his characters face the same kind of systemic breakdown promised by the Singularity. But rather than artificial intelligence and quantum supercomputing, the agents that rattle and rock the world of After James are born of the mind: creativity, art, perception, curiosity. It conceives a baffling interconnectedness of, and explores the profound intimacy between, artist, subject, and the natural world.
Although a novel in design, After James does not follow anything resembling a traditional structure. It is composed of three distinct parts that all feature different settings, different plot points, and different protagonists — Ali, James, and Celia.
Ali is a neuroscientist and the lead designer of a new “creativity pill” that has produced alarming results in the artists and writers who have sampled it: they become far more prolific, but also seem to dissociate from reality, claiming that their eyes have been opened to the true nature of the world’s structure. They call Ali, the inventor of the drug, “Maker.” When she demands that the experiment end, one subject is so distraught that he commits suicide.
Part Two follows James, a struggling writer who falls in with an underground group of literary sleuths devoted to uncovering the identity of “The Poet,” an anonymous curator of a website, whose poems are a bit too insightful regarding the details of various crimes and tragedies, including the mysterious deaths of James’s parents. Through relentless, almost mathematical, analysis of The Poet’s writing, the contours of a far vaster web of mysteries begins to emerge.
The novel concludes with Celia, a virologist studying ancient plagues, who discovers an impossible rock formation in a remote, previously unexplored cave. Upon returning to civilization, shaken by her discovery, she must confront the even stranger discovery that an avant-garde artist has invented a strange new kind of art exhibit that inexplicably places her own likeness at its center. She decides to attend the exhibit, with profound consequences.
Although the potential for thematic overlap in these tales is quite clear, After James is much more than a series of linked novellas. Indeed, the greatest strength of Helm’s work is how expertly he drip-drops tantalizing snippets of a larger context, which can both clarify the connections between each part and muddy the waters of what is and is not really happening. There is a deeper mystery at work here, revealing itself in choice moments that demand multiple readings and thoughtful consideration. Rather than, say, an Agatha Christie whodunnit, wherein the pieces fall succinctly into place just in time for the climax, the implications of After James are more conceptual and enigmatic. Upon completion of each part of the novel, I was drawn to take long, meandering walks outside to struggle through the questions I believed I could answer, as well as those yet to be resolved. When finished, I turned back to page one and began again. It is a book that demands time and focus, critical thinking and wild, fearless speculation. Those willing to give themselves over to Helm’s ever-shifting madhouse will be deeply rewarded with what they find.
Even apart from the core mythos that holds the novel’s unique structure together, After James is nothing if not ambitious. Partly because of the intellectual backgrounds of each character, and partly because the world they inhabit is almost literally coming apart at the seam, the focus of the trio’s conversations and internal musings always aims high, pushing each of them against the boundaries of reason and perception.
Their philosophizing yields an interesting mix of results. In attempting to explain the function of poetry to his father, a righteously no-nonsense kind of man, James whispers beautifully of a deep and meaningful communion:
[To] write poetry is like playing a game, a board game, but it’s play in service of the real, a game in which the win is the defeat of the game itself. In the last move the gaming piece (imagine a stone) leaps from the board into the world, the real, the physical, a red quickness, the actual, and the game becomes a kind of miracle, rules broken and laws suspended. It’s a lesser miracle, but one connected to the greatest of them, the creation of life itself, in which inanimate material, a stone (imagine a gaming piece) is struck into consciousness and set down in the home space, the world.
Elsewhere, Celia and her father, a man in the midst of spiritual awakening, have their own debate about the convergence of art and cosmology. “‘We mimic creations,’” her father tells her. He goes on:
“We make because we’re made. And we can deepen ourselves by encountering those things made in response to reality at base. It’s art touching reality I’m after, religious art or otherwise. I’m not interested in pop songs made of pop songs.”
“I like pop songs, as you call them. And some people see gods there too.”
A little scoffing laugh.
“There’s a big difference between true things and their mockeries. The mockeries will do us in.”
Ever present in these sometimes lengthy dialogs is the challenge of uncertainty, the grasping for an ever more secure foothold. Like all people, Ali, James, and Celia struggle with what they do not know, and are often frustrated by the lingering sense of only just failing to understand. And yet they keep on. Their unique situations, that apocalyptic blurring of truth itself, demand a critical analysis of the very reality they see around them, even while demonstrating, again and again, that reality is itself untrustworthy, liable to slither and bend in unpredictable ways.
Through its own unique grasp of narrative slithers and bends, After James masterfully places readers in the same predicament it has placed its characters. It not only raises profound questions about the nature of life and imagination in the modern world, but actually dares to answer them. Like those powerful secrets that lurk beyond the Singularity, the answers are both real — planted there in the rich soil of Helm’s unforgettable novel, waiting to be harvested by inquisitive readers — and impossibly remote, mere wisps of barren rock that remain only just unseen.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.