Monday, December 1, 2014

"American Elsewhere" by Robert Jackson Bennett



“Some places are too good to be true. Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map. In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things…” (taken from the Goodreads summary)
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      American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett follows the story of former policewoman Mona Bright, as she tracks down information regarding her deceased mother and finds herself in the small town of Wink, New Mexico. Suddenly the benefactor of her mother’s old house, Mona decides to temporarily reside in the town of Wink while she decides what to do with the house. The town is strange, mysterious, and dangerous as a whole, and even stranger as individual residents are introduced. The undoubtedly human residents seem quite content to make arrangements and conditions for strange unseen forces while never ever venturing out of their houses after dark; staple community members are unquestionably fey, otherworldly, and know more than they’re telling; and clusters of residents seem stuck in a pseudo Stepford-like haze without any clue as to what they are doing or what constitutes normality. Mona finds herself interacting with all these bizarre townspeople while trying to unravel the mysteries of how her mother fit into this small town dynamic, what role the abandoned scientific research facility on the mountain looming over the town plays, and the reason why her mother chose to end her life  so abruptly and without warning.
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      American Elsewhere at first appears as a work of urban fiction--an ex-cop turned drifter, disillusioned with the justice system dealing with the loss of both her parents--but quickly starts to twist into an otherworldly invasion story worthy of an episode of The X-Files. Or Sanctuary.  Or a bizarre hybrid of both. As the story progressed, the town began to twist into a bizarre nightmare world. The laws of physics start to warp and it starts being less like a  mystery and more along the lines of a sci-fi mad scientist backstory gone horribly horribly wrong. I discovered this book when looking for long fiction that embraced the Lovecraftian narrative style of writing. And American Elsewhere definitely has Lovecraftian narrative running throughout its plot. In fact, as I was reading I started to picture the town of Wink, NM as a sister town to Night Vale--the fictional desert community of Welcome to Night Vale, the CommonPlace Books podcast heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  
      And once my brain made this comparison, I was hooked and desperate to read it all in one sitting. Unfortunately, since I had started reading it on a one hour lunch break, that wasn’t going to happen so for the rest of the day I kept gazing longingly at my satchel bag and making whimpering noises.
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      American Elsewhere is most definitely, unquestionably, and without a doubt, weird. There’s no other one word description for it. Which was great for me, because I tend to deliberately seek out and embrace the weird. It’s weird, it’s twisted, and it delves into the dark recesses of human thought to poke at the lingering fears humanity has stored in the backs of their minds. The base story that Bennett presents is not necessarily new--on the contrary, there have been so many sci-fi stories that rely on the infiltration trope, i.e. humanity’s slow replacement with otherworldly duplicates or subversive enemy agents that it’s pretty much become its own branch off of science fiction. We’ve seen it in so many times in movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Faculty, The Invasion, The Thing, Little Shop of Horrors, Oblivion, Slither, The World’s End, etc.), in comics (Marvel’s  entire Skrull Invasion comic series), in television (the long-running Syndicate story-arc in The X-files, multiple story-arcs in Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Outer Limits, Stargate SG-1), in literature (Animorphs, The Puppet Masters, The Bone Clocks)--it’s a very well known plot device for sci-fi creators. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a worn-out plot device. On the contrary, Bennett uses it to his full advantage. Combining a classic creation-style myth with the infiltration trope, gritty urban fiction style writing, and plenty of aberrant Cthulhu-esque monsters, at the end of this book I found myself wishing that I could wipe it from my memory completely so I could read it again and experience it for the first time .
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      American Elsewhere was Robert Jackson Bennett’s fourth novel, and you can find it in the fiction section at the Ocean City Free Public Library. Or put a hold on it in our online catalogue.

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