I realize this is a fraught enterprise. Picking up any new book is an act of faith; committing to a long, difficult one written by someone you’ve never heard of feels dangerously promiscuous. A brief note below Moxon’s headshot on the jacket flap says only that the author lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., which is neither here nor there, and that he runs a popular Twitter handle, which is such a humiliating distinction that I shall not mention it. In any case, Moxon’s omnivorous mind and acrobatic style shouldn’t be restricted to 280 characters — or even 280 pages. This brilliant writer needs all the space he can get.
“The Revisionaries” opens in a derelict inner-city neighborhood known as Loony Island, an allusion to the psychiatric ward in the center of town. As the result of misguided political interference, all the mental patients have been precipitously released. You may remember that in the late 20th century, similar policies led to tragedies in cities across America. In Moxon’s wry satire, Loony Island devolves into a giddy zombie apocalypse. That chaos disrupts the natural order of the local gangs and draws in a powerful new crime boss with an army of red-robed warriors carrying swords. They’re determined to capture a young patient named Gordy. But their nefarious plan doesn’t sit well with Father Julius, the unordained but devoted leader of a local cathedral. Risking life and limb, Julius manages to outrun the warriors and spirit Gordy away to safety — for a while.
This action gushes off the page, told by Gordy’s father, who was a fellow patient at Loony Island, and a witty third-person narrator who draws us into related calamities breaking out all over town. New crimes are being plotted; long-resented offenses will be savagely avenged. And I haven’t even mentioned the weird parts yet: One of the gangsters trying to capture Gordy is visited by a man in a powder blue suit who delivers an urgent warning and then folds himself into increasingly smaller pieces until he vanishes. And Gordy’s body has a disconcerting habit of flickering in and out like a failing lightbulb.
As we fall further down this vertiginous story, “The Revisionaries” grows curiouser and curiouser. Summarizing its plot much beyond this point is as futile as herding cats. Moxon is a literary demon, constantly exploiting and thwarting our need for coherence and logic. He grabs other stories and motifs as if he’s charging through a three-hour sale at Filene’s Basement. Someday, the annotated edition of “The Revisionaries” will be stuffed with footnotes referencing children’s books, Bible verses, science fiction, philosophical treatises, noir mysteries and ancient histories. One section is drawn from a handwritten chapbook that describes an 18th-century settlement in Appalachia near a magical fountain whose water obliterates the mind of anyone who drinks it. Other scenes show a vast private prison system that employs a painless form of torture that is the creepiest thing I have ever read. On one page, we get an actual frame from the graphic novel these characters may appear in. And there’s a traveling circus that could have split off from “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” All these elements — past and present, real and surreal, serious and absurd — are stacked like some Olympic version of literary Jenga. Admittedly, sometimes it feels like reading a novel by Murakami in the original Japanese if you don’t speak Japanese.
When a tough female gangster from Loony Island thinks, “All boundaries are permeable,” she’s not far from the animating principle of “The Revisionaries,” whose various story lines constantly blur into one another. In fact, Moxon periodically preempts his critics by referencing, for instance, an author who “maintained only some scattershot organization.” Near the end, a character decries being the middleman in this “moralizing transfiguring partially visible comic book freak-show nonsense.” But that’s all ironical gamesmanship, the master magician pretending to be flummoxed by his own tricks.
Halfway through, the whole book turns inside out, and we suddenly become aware that we’re reading a novel in contentious dialogue with itself. Sentences reappear in slightly revised form; at some points the very text on the page fades away. (Kudos to the indie publisher, Melville House, for including that and other clever design elements throughout.) This is as plastic as narrative can be; in the eeriest parts, the story feels like it’s melting in our hands. Exploring the fluid relationship between writer, reader and interpretation, it’s equally audacious and brilliant.
But not all the light of “The Revisionaries” comes from its postmodern fireworks. As a satire of psychiatric hospitals and prisons, the novel is frighteningly insightful. Its critique of masculine solipsism is devastating. And finally, as this bizarre story expands like the Big Bang, sections start to cohere around what are essentially theological themes. The result is “Paradise Lost” but with more gangsters: a zany interrogation of religious concepts in a wholly secular context. The fight over who gets control over young Gordy is really a struggle for the messianic power he wields in this fantastical world. And when the tale soars into the realm of superheroes, it explores the moral complications of omnipotence and the paradoxes of theodicy. In his own strange way, Moxon has translated his eschatological revelations into the lurid colors of a comic book universe. Grand Rapids is the new Patmos.
If you make it through this brazen novel, the only thing you’ll want to do is find another survivor to talk about what it meant and what you missed. Call me.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By A.R. Moxon
Melville. 600 pp. $29.99