Ivyland a fine looking book, all red and shining pink—so fine that I would have loved to translate it into an outfit. But soon, reader, you will realize that the plastic oxygen mask on the cover represents so much of the book that to interpret it in wool and cotton would not be right.
In Klee’s future, in a fictional New Jersey town run by omnipresent pharmaceutical company Endless, many of today’s less fictional problems appear, just slightly shifted or exacerbated. The promo that runs on loop in an Endless funded bus explains:
We’ve turned the tide in the War on Drugs, our isotope signature research allowing authorities to stamp out origin and distribution points for many illegal intoxicants. Our innovative development team has produced Belltruvin, the most successful over-the-counter anti-anxiety medication in history, and Adderade, a groundbreaking beverage that spells the end of unfocused energy. We have entered sure-footedly that transhuman era when at least we can break free of DNA….
The trouble is: we’re not transhuman, not in this dystopian future. Belltruvin and Adderade and an unnamed medical gas—that occasionally causes violent allergic reactions and ruins quite a few lives, whether by allergy or by addiction—only become more fuel for greed to abuse. Hence the oxygen mask cover, a quiet reminder that, in Ivyland, everything has gone to shit.
Klee’s characters are drug-addled or hospitalized or vicious and scalpel-crazy or being chased by the police or are the druggy police or are severely damaged after a bad reaction to the gas or are suffering from an inexplicable illness that involves electricity or are haunted by the town’s caterpillar plague or, in possibly the worst case, are stranded in a defunct space shuttle (in space, not Ivyland, but that’s pretty bad). In every chapter, the narrative shifts time and speaker, which takes some time to sort out. Yet, each voice is very different and engaging and believable. Grady, whose mental capacity was stunted from a gas allergy, speaks in childlike, grammatically inaccurate blasts: “I axed him an easier way. He says, ‘Shush, space shuttle news is on.’ He’s a weird one, but he’s trying you know.”
They’re all weird ones and troubled; within each character’s personal hell, Klee teases out elementary human principles, those that do not change no matter what drugs we’re on or fictional city we’re in. And what do we do when everything is trashed? We reach. We reach for intoxicants. We reach within ourselves and analyze our lives. We reach for each other. We see all of Klee’s characters doing this in some form, but the novel takes most of its shape from the dual stories of brothers, Cal and Aidan. The other stories revolve around them, anecdotes within their lives.
In the brothers’ separate chapters, they rarely speak of each other, yet the undertone of their conjoined lives lies there. Other characters repeatedly mistake Aidan for Cal and ask why he isn’t in space (Cal being the one stuck in the space shuttle). In one of the book’s most moving and illuminating chapters, Klee juxtaposes their two narratives next to each other, a very risky technique that only works here because of the importance of the brothers’ bond. They are both reaching for each other as their lives collapse.
As Cal floats in space—alone but for one other astronaut, just a freeze-dried ice cream and suicide pill away from eternity—he reflects on what led him there, becoming the internalized and reflective half of the brothers’ duality. He says,
We don’t know what happened; I assure myself that no one does. Malfunction. Nonfunction. It began with the lights dozing, dimming away. Preoccupied, we blamed our minds. Lines of communication scraped away to useless hums, hums then exchanged for thicker silence.
And he could easily be speaking about his relationship with Aidan and how, despite growing up together, they have literally drifted apart: Cal replaced by Aidan’s oddball friend Henri and an obsession with Cal’s ex-girlfriend, Aidan replaced by anger and escape.
Once I grasped onto this relationship, the novel began to coalesce. Without it, the jumble of characters would float formless, interesting but lacking. Klee is best when he allows his characters to fall into philosophizing about the state of their lives and about Ivyland. The plot does not support this book: the characters and their relationships, strained and filled with passion, do. The novel’s poignancy relies on the author’s ability to draw characters who, just as they reach for each other, pull away; they cannot give much of themselves. Aidan desperately wants Cal’s ex-girlfriend but can never find the words, and, when he gets close, he remembers that Cal has been there before. Pulls away.
It seems doubtful but not impossible that the denizens of in Ivyland can bridge the gap between themselves and others. One of the character’s philosophical gems haunts the story (and me): “Hell is a Paradise you can’t share.” Whether Hell is Ivyland or oneself, I’m still not sure.
* * *
BONUS: For those who prefer visuals, here’s Kevin Thomas’s comic review of the novel.
Ivyland by Miles Klee
OR Books, March 2012
ISBN: 978-1-935928-61-4. 250 pp.