Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Up, Up, Away, and Back Again
By Roxanne Fequiere
While pinballing from planet to planet and realm to realm this month, I’ve made a conscious effort to willingly suspend disbelief. After a lifetime of turning up my nose at fantastical plots, I wanted to at least give the genre a fair shake. After all, why take a trip if you’re unwilling to enjoy the journey? I stumbled at first, cringing when I discovered the Gethenian calendar at the back of The Left Hand of Darkness, but the progress I’ve made didn’t really sink in until I caught myself in the backseat of a Lyft at 11PM, using my phone’s flashlight to devour the last few chapters of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, a dystopian novel in which inanimate objects must be named, out loud and daily, lest they dissolve into “gloop.”
Example: Vanja, the novel’s reticent main character, journeys by train from her home colony of Essre to Amatka. Her toothbrush, once marked clearly by the word “toothbrush,” has been rubbed nearly clean of its label, and she hasn’t taken care to hold it in her hand while muttering its name over and over again, thereby solidifying its shape. By the time she arrives in Amatka and opens up her toiletry bag, it’s coated in a thick paste: her former toothbrush, turned to a formless and potentially dangerous substance.
The premise is a strange one that could easily skew cartoonish, but Tidbeck goes about building this bleak, preternatural world deftly. Everything from cups to clothing to the buildings that house these objects are susceptible to dissolution if not properly marked on a regular basis. Language is the foundation of the colony’s literal structure, and as such, it must be heavily policed. The only items that are able to exist without the assistance of constant conjuring are those made from “good” material, that which was brought along with the pioneers who first settled on this planet, presumably having traveled from Earth.
Vanja arrives in Amatka with a loosely defined mission: to collect information on the subject of hygiene for her employer. She tackles her task valiantly, if not somewhat begrudgingly. An introvert by nature, she was happier at a previous job, one where she wasn’t required to talk to people. Her research leads her down an unexpected path, one that pierces the veil of the colonies’ origin story and suggests that there may be more to life than the dreary existence laid out before her.
It’s safe to say that I was on board for every twist and turn of Tidbeck’s tale. When I was alone with the book, I tore through it, increasingly agitated over the possibility of this entire fictional world turning into a shapeless, gelatinous mass. When I shared the book’s details with friends—a tour of an underground mushroom farm, collapsed tunnels, a strange pipe with a ladder inside that leads to the outskirts of town—I got smirks, confused looks, a query regarding whether or not Amatka was perhaps an elaborate work of Mario Bros. fan fiction.
The question was a reasonable one, but I’d transcended the realm of reason. The stakes were high and literally all I wanted to know was how Vanja was going to escape Amatka’s oppressive society and expose the truth without alerting the authorities. When it came time to leave the house for a pre-arranged night out and I still had twenty pages to go, I grabbed a mini backpack, shoved the book inside, and carried it with me on my way to the club.
Cruising down the FDR, I balanced my phone on my lap and cupped the book around its light, so as not to disturb the driver. I flipped each page sharply, hoping I’d make it to the end before arriving at my destination.
When I turned the last page, I hesitated, wondering if in my haste, I’d managed to somehow skip a chunk of the narrative. The ending was somewhat hazy, vague in a way that clashes with the sharp, sparse prose of the majority of the book. Perhaps this was a stylistic choice, concerned as the plot itself is with the vagaries of language. Maybe the story simply transitioned into a series of events so far-fetched that even my newly expanded capacities of credulity failed me in the end. All I knew was that I was left wanting more, and there was none to be had.
The driver voice’s snapped me back to attention. The road leading to the address I’d given him was blocked off. I returned the book to my backpack and hopped out of the car to walk the last few blocks. I could feel my skepticism rushing back in as I turned the story over in my mind, but I couldn’t say I regretted reading the story. I’d been taken on two trips that ended abruptly that night, but I couldn’t find fault with the routes that had led there. I’d still rate both rides four stars.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.