Pick up “Bats of the Republic” and — even before you start reading — you’re instantly transfixed. The author, Zachary Thomas Dodson, is a book designer who co-founded Featherproof Books out of Chicago, and his debut novel is a glorious demonstration of what old-fashioned paper can still do in the hands of a creative genius.
Stuffed into this illuminated novel are books within books, including a facsimile of a 19th-century novel, complete with tissue-covered plates and a wormhole piercing every page. The dust jacket has two sides, the lining printed in reverse. The whole steampunk apparatus is chockablock with foldout maps, torn telegrams, bits of newspaper articles, drawings of bats and other real and imagined creatures, diagrams of “steammoats” and other inventions, and, most fun of all, an actual envelope with the cryptic instruction “Do Not Open.” (Resist!) These beautifully designed elements not only add depth and detail to the story, but they also instruct the reader on how to move through the book.
In addition to all its visual excitement, “Bats of the Republic” tells two intertwined and echoing stories. One is set in 1843 in Chicago’s Museum of Flying. Young naturalist Zadock Thomas is in love with his boss’s daughter, Elswyth Gray. To win her hand, he must deliver a secret letter from his boss to a mysterious general in the Republic of Texas. Through a series of letters to his beloved, Zadock recounts his journey into a strange land that turns stranger with each step. Just as his situation becomes most dire, he stumbles across a cloud of bats and a vast cave that threatens his mission and provides an opportunity for him to make a name for himself. He decides he will create a field guide called “Bats of the Republic” to impress his prospective father-in-law and help keep the rickety Museum of Flying aloft. Juxtaposed against his letters home is a novel called “The Sisters Gray,” which purports to be a lightly fictionalized account of what is happening in Chicago while Zadock is on the trail.
The second story is drawn from a novel called “The City-State,” written by Elswyth’s mother. It’s set 300 years later in the new Republic of Texas, one of seven such walled districts left behind after an apocalypse. In this dystopian future, the government is watching, listening and recording everything. All written correspondence is forbidden. Documents from the past must be “carbon’d” and the copies sent to the Vault of Records. A character named Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope inscribed with the warning “Do Not Open” from his grandfather, a senator from Chicago-land. Zeke’s wife, Eliza, who works in the Vault, fears the consequences of the illegal letter, and she sets in motion a series of events that leads to calamity. Only by rebelling against the government can Zeke reclaim his freedom. Spreading like an umbrella over both stories are letters from Eliza’s father, relating the true history from 1840s Texas to Eliza in the 2140s, until the “real” and the “fictional” merge.
Then things get complicated.
As bats use sonar, these stories echo in meaningful ways. Events that happen in one story are anticipated in the others. Eventually, the method worms its way through. Stories are told side by side on facing pages (white ink on black backgrounds); transcribed conversations are run in parallel columns. The whole reading experience becomes disorienting and dizzying as the past and the future converge in a kind of infinite loop — or the seemingly crazy paths of bats in flight.
“Bats of the Republic” cumulatively becomes a book about the way books are made and the way stories work. Novels, Dodson suggests, are contraptions, jury-rigged together with parts of other novels, archived letters, remembered conversations, maps, scraps of info, imagined journeys, and creatures real and strange. Archetypes of the cowboy story, tropes drawn from sci fi, love letters, diaries, confessions all abound in this relentlessly engaging tale. Dodson has quite brilliantly exposed the gears and cogs whirring in the novelist’s imagination. It is a mad and beautiful thing.
And best of all, there are bats — and batty writers. Lost and injured in the Republic of Texas, Zadock prepares a task list to ensure his fame as a writer:
● Explore the entirety of Texas (the underground especially)
● Document all bat species therein
● Complete First draft
● Finalize plate engravings, 24 total in the initial collection
● Mock-up for prospective publishers
● Sign Publishing contract
● Complementary display installation at Zoological Garden? (Rather than Museum of Flying)
● Draft sales pitch for subscribers
● Public lecture and Book release (Invite Grays)
● Book Reviews
● Send C.V. to European Institutes
Such flights of fancy! Such imaginative designs!
Keith Donohue is the author of four novels. “The Boy Who Drew Monsters” comes out in paperback this month.
By Zachary Thomas Dodson
Doubleday. 450 pp. $27.95