» Book Review
The Thing That Has Caged Them
Bloomland, by John Englehardt
Dzanc Books, 2019
Hardcover, 192 pages, $26.95
Considering that we’re bombarded daily with footage from ground zero of one act of mass violence after another, I ask, “Do we need a novel about it?” After finishing the last page of John Englehardt’s stark, yet heartbreakingly human novel, Bloomland, the answer is a confident, “Yes, we do.” Because this novel isn’t about a mass shooting itself, which only takes about half a page. It’s about the closeness of circumstances a person has with a killer, the choices we make that define our behaviors, and the lives we come into contact with and ricochet away from.
Bloomland, which won the 2018 Dzanc Prize for Fiction, follows three characters: Rose, a young woman, a survivor of a natural disaster that killed her brother and who decides to attend college; Eddie, a professor at the same college Rose attends, married to a woman who’s more chaotic and alive than he is; and Eli, a young man in trouble, navigating the wrong choices of his life with a sense of malice and dourness. Each chapter covers a different moment in these characters’ trajectory toward tragedy, where they find themselves during the shooting, and what happens in its aftermath.
Bloomland is narrated in a perfectly executed second-person present until twenty pages in when the line, “I still think about you two every time one of my students gets engaged,” appears. We discover later that this first-person narrator is someone named Steven, who crafts a narrative style that shifts and skews details of events according to the identity of each of the three characters. This speculation of narrative is in the very DNA of a second-person narrator narrating for others. We accept that there’s no way for a person to know the lives and minds of others. Steven is not a character, though the three characters interact with him at varying points—Eddie more than others. We know he’s either a professor or therapist at the college, but other than that, he is simply our narrator.
This second/first-person bifurcation of truth vs. narrative reality mimics the unknown narratives presented by the media to us during the aftermath of a tragic event—like the narrator, who is not purely omniscient and therefore provides us with details that, in the end, might not be real at all. This isn’t frustrating in any way. In fact, it’s very, very smart. Bloomland is a third-person, omniscient-style novel told in the second person from a first-person narrator, Steven.
The novel is about transformation. More specifically: reinvention. Events reinvent people and places. A location becomes a specific place after an act of mass violence, forever stained by the Event. Rose, scarred by the natural disaster that destroyed her life, seeks reinvention by shedding her small-town life and joining the anonymous comforts of college and sorority life. She gives herself the name “Rose”—though we never know her birth name because it isn’t something Steven knows. Later in the novel, Rose begins to assist a woman who photographs infant deaths. The pairing of these individual tragedies with the mass violence and natural disaster works perfectly. Each feels completely senseless and leads the survivors to wonder: Why?
Good books feel both foreign and familiar. Bloomland feels like a familiar conversation between people you’ve never met but instantly recognize. Englehardt’s work is so intuitive, so wise, that I nodded at lines, such as, “If you punish someone for feeling caged in, you can only expect them to view you as the thing that has caged them,” and “You’re like someone in debt who starts buying lottery tickets instead of declaring bankruptcy.” The novel isn’t consumed by the oncoming violence. It’s concerned with life, how we all move around each other. Englehardt treats the ways in which we hurt or help each other with authenticity. The good and the bad both feel natural.
Eli, the shooter in the novel, is not sympathetic, nor is he demonized. There are no excuses. The reason behind Eli’s act points to choice. Englehardt steps away from the idea of creating a victim out of the victimizer and instead presents an active agency. A crucial moment supporting this comes while Eli works on a farm cutting the beaks off baby chickens. He works with the farmer, doing the exact same job, and yet Eli sees the work as beneath him. But the farmer isn’t like that. The farmer doesn’t see it as anything other than work. It’s an active choice for Eli to see the things happening to him as, “Ohh, the world is against me.” He’s active in his negative view.
Later, the narrator tells us Eli thinks “that there is some preordained, fixed destiny [he is] fulfilling, when in reality it has just been retold to [him] so many times that there seems to be no original model after which you are patterned.” What has been retold is the idea that society makes the monster, which is what people like Eli believe. The truth is that Eli reinvents himself by choosing to view the world as “against him,” by choosing to turn to dealing drugs and harassing young women, by choosing to believe in Heisenberg’s theory that reality doesn’t exist unless it’s observed—which places those who exist in reality at the whim of their creator. He chooses if they live or die. With this, Englehardt points at those who look at small moments, or hard moments, and consider that we are alone in it, that we are the butt of some ethereal joke, and that all of society is against us and our only way to take revenge is to lash out with violence or aggression.
In the aftermath of Eli lashing out through an act of mass violence, Englehardt explores questions around the death penalty. Is it about justice? Where is the justice in the death of a perpetrator? For Englehardt’s characters, it’s a matter of closure: will his institutionalized death bring closure to their lives, to the deaths, to the Event? Englehardt navigates these questions in a way that has no finite answer—just like these moments have no logical finality. Each is an open wound that heals but always leaves a scar.
The best closing lines ease you out of a world, tell you that the characters will continue but you cannot join them. The end of Bloomland puts a period on our participation in the lives of these three characters. We see their progress toward personal resolution through healing wounds and personal growth. This is often what makes finishing a good book so difficult—we don’t want to leave. This novel is hard to leave, hard to not discuss after one finishes reading it. It’s important and should be required reading. But with Bloomland, the closing line leaves that world open by pointing out that in the aftermath of these tragedies, we don’t “examine its decay” but instead “focus on […] the sound.” It tells us that we are always going to live in the gloom of Bloomland, that this is how our world works—which is what makes it so terrifying and heartbreaking.