[Note: Just one review this week. So I decided to spend some time with it.]
One of my very favorite parts of being a sales rep is taking a book I love out to booksellers and starting a conversation. Being part of the bookselling community (albeit once removed) is like being part of the very best book club. This club is filled with smart, excitable people who read all kinds of things and make surprising, fun, insightful observations. My road trips taking advance reads out to them and hearing their advice on the best books I should read from other publishers is the most rewarding part of my job. (In that spirit, Joseph-Beth, thanks for Security. That is one wild beach read! Parnassus, thanks for the great conversation about Sweet Lamb of Heaven. And pretty much every literary bookseller in my territory, thanks for making me put that fabulous doorstop of a novel, The Sport of Kings, on my list. I haven’t read a novel like this about America’s complicated history since The Son. I can’t put it down!)
The point here is that I spend a lot of time with booksellers talking over Harper’s new books and how to sell them. Every once in a while I read a book that I love—one that’s smart and funny and filled with ideas—but also so outlandish and crazy I can’t imagine how I’m going to communicate its niftiness to booksellers. Only booksellers who enjoy a challenge signed on when I tried to sell this one by plot. Here goes: “This takes place less than forty years in the future in a proto-fascist England. The protagonist is a 90 year old, obese, homeless man who hears the voices of the animals in the London Zoo calling him to set them free. Oh yeah, and an asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s a suicide death cult that is killing animals because they believe the asteroid is a starship that will take survivors away.”
Yep, I can see you scrolling away looking for something else…. 🙂
The satire here is truly outlandish. (Matt Ruff-level outlandish.) But it’s in service quite of bit of very barbed hilarity and a deep intelligence. For instance, this is a world where only the 1% get the kind of mental health care we are familiar with; the rest of the country receives “palliative neurology.” The whole book is that kind of smart-funny.
Here’s another example of the kind of winking cleverness the book is infused with: One of the most beguiling characters is a little sand cat in the London Zoo named Muezza. Broun envisions the cat as a fast-talking trickster. Is Muezza an oracle or a self-serving con-man? By this point in the book I had learned to read with Google at my side. So I wondered if there was something to that name and it turns out that the Muezza is the name of the prophet Muhammed’s favorite cat. Like so many things in this sly social satire, the zaniness of the plot just scratches the surface of what the author is up to.
So why does a reader pick up a 500+ page bag of craziness like this? I did because two darkly intelligent writers who I really admire endorsed it. Mary Gaitskill called it “the most beautiful, strange new novel I have read in years” and Jim Crace hailed it as “a novel of startling originality; it is important, mesmerizing and touching.” It turns out the advance reviews also arrived that conclusion with Night of the Animals receiving an extremely rare four starred advance reviews.
I include a healthy dose of excerpts from those starred reviews below. And one of the most interesting assessments comes from an email conversation I had with a bookseller pal, Matt Nixon at The Booksellers in Memphis, TN.
Ultimately it took me 8 weeks of conversations to boil down my opinion of this book to a 30-second “handsell” that booksellers might be able to use for customers. Here you go: This is a debut for fans of Terry Gilliam’s classic film, The Fisher King. Like that movie, Night of the Animals is a funny, outlandish, beautiful, disturbing fantasy romance about the intersection of misery and redemption, despair and faith, mental illness and mystical vision.
Broun’s debut novel mixes mystical and maniacal forces in a swirl of futuristic imagery featuring talking animals. In 2052, the last great repository of animals on Earth is the London Zoo. The Heaven’s Gate suicide cult has been systematically exterminating wildlife, along with themselves, in a search for a higher plane of existence. At the same time, nonagenarian Cuthbert Handley, addicted to a hallucinogen called Flot, searches for Drystan, his lost brother…As Cuthbert works his way through the zoo, snapping chain-links with bolt cutters, he converses with the jackals, penguins, and an articulate sand cat as he looks for his brother and an elusive otter prince. Through precise and eloquent prose and a hint of political satire, Broun creates a near future filled with bioelectric technology and characters with patois as diverse as their desires. Broun’s novel is strange, witty, and engrossing, skipping through madness and into the realm of myth.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An Orwellian debut explodes ancient lore and contemporary technology to create a prescient, terrifying dystopia. In 2052, Britain has become an extreme surveillance state with pre-Victorian levels of brutal poverty. King Henry IX, aka Harry9, controls the news through WikiNous, the Internet transmitted through flesh. Alerts, text messages, and spam scroll across citizens’ corneas, with incoming messages flashing colors like a migraine aura. The ability to opt out of the spam is only available to the wealthiest…. The language of the novel crackles with energy, nimbly drawing on Old English, regional dialects and slang, and speculative future language. The worlds’ religions-paganism, Christianity, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, Yoruba-fuse together in a luminous supernatural force which buoys forward poor Cuthbert, who, despite the risk of multiple-organ failure, doggedly pursues his mission to keep the voices of the animals alive. An impressive, richly imagined, deeply urgent story.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This highly recommended, original tour de force creates a richly imagined realm that evokes Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil while maintaining a sense of wonder.”
— Library Journal (starred review)
The year is 2052 and Earth, not surprisingly, has gone to hell. Humans have become a weird concoction of biology and technology, personal freedom is but a vague memory, and resources are stretched beyond the breaking point….Imaginative, fast-paced, thoughtful, and awash in laser-like imagery, debut novelist Broun’s phantasmagorical fable vibrantly blends myth and satire to paint both a cautionary warning about present behavior and a futuristic vision of what the unbridled abuse of nature might unveil. For fans of Lydia Millet and Margaret Atwood.”
— Booklist (starred review)
“Speculative fiction takes what currently is and shows us what the future could be. Fantasy uses what cannot be to expand our ideas of what is possible. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is a strange immersive brew, part speculative fiction, part fantasy, part ancient folklore/Celtic spiritualism…and wholly original. In 2052, 90 year-old Cuthbert Handley, an indigent addict, believes he’s the last person to possess The Wonderments, the ancient power to speak to animals. It seems the animals at the London Zoo, each the last of their kind on earth, have implored Handley to set them free. The animals insist this is the only way to save Handley’s beloved England–now under the rule of the invasive, iron-fisted and capricious King Harry–from destruction at the hands of the world’s most insidious suicide cult. Is Handley in possession of The Wonderments or an insane addict? Do “suicide cults” actually threaten England or are they an instrument of propaganda for the The Crown to control its subjects? While Broun spins current societal forces and technologies 35-plus years into the future to interesting effect, what sets Night of the Animals apart is its understanding of the future that speculative fiction so often misses: in our present moment, we are terrible at predicting the future. Broun uses contemporary afterthoughts to great, unexpected (and often comedic) effect. The story explores how technology, like a drug, creates an eternal “now” and flattens history; do we have the capacity any longer to truly differentiate what from the past needs to be saved? A weird, possibly profound, tale of personal, national and spiritual history, and the preservation of each, Night of the Animals is a trip. An immersive, unforgettable trip.”
— Matt Nixon, The Booksellers, Memphis, TN
Night of the Animals (9780062400796) by Bill Broun. $26.99 hardcover. 7/5/16 on sale.