Thursday, September 8, 2016

After James

After James by Michael Helm
Tin House Books: 9/13/16
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781941040416

After James by Michael Helm is a so-so novel told in three loosely connected storylines.  Disturbing and atmospheric, After James features stylistic, existential and dense prose resulting in a feeling of unease. The three parts of the novel represent three types of genre fiction: the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic.

The first part follows Ali, a neuroscientist who abruptly leaves her job and isolates herself in rural Canada. She plans to blow the whistle on the drug she helped create, Alph, which enhances creativity but also induces suicide in test subjects. The second part follows James, a literary detective hired by Ali's father as he tries to find Ali by decoding the work of an internet poet who writes with precise details about the disappearance and murder of people. The third part features Ali's sister Cecilia, a survivor of a miscarriage, who has her identity stolen by a conceptual artist.

After James is an ambitious novel that has brilliant parts but doesn't quite live up to its lofty goals. Part of the reason for this is the prose itself, which tends to be incredibly detailed. When this prose turns toward the characters, who are excessively reflective about everything, it is easy to lose track of any direction the stories are taking. They become pages of characters wallowing in their own thoughts while leaving the reader struggling to keep reading. I never felt any connection to them or had even begun to care about what they were thinking.

And, if I'm totally honest, Helm had to do a lot of making up to me as a reader concerning Ali and her dog. Ali, for an intelligent woman, needed more assertiveness and should have pulled out her cell phone and made a few calls. I don't think I ever quite forgave Helm for what happened to Ali's dog and her hazy nonchalant attitude toward him being missing. It's never good if I'm mentally talking back to an author about characters and choices. It didn't bode well for the next two parts.  In the end even the passages that were incredible couldn't overcome all the passages that left me struggling to keep reading (and I am a reader who tries very hard to understand the author's intent and very, very rarely does not finish what I start.)

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

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