In this age of digitization, the act of holding a book in your hands appears to have faded into a forgotten luxury. Leafing through the fresh-cut pages of a new novel, scrawling notes in margins that can’t be erased with a simple ctrl-z, the muted thud of a completed paperback dropped to the floor as digestion begins. Although the advent of e-books has ushered portability and convenience into the home library, that proliferation of pdfs has endangered those satisfactions unique to paper and pen. From this technological turbulence has emerged the illuminated novel—-a book that takes a conventional plot as its centerpiece and then decorates it with postcards, leaflets and other addenda. Printed, drawn or wedged into the pages, these inserts become critical appendages of the story and transform books, such as J.J. Abrams’ and Doug Dorst’s collaboration S. and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, into odes to the physical.
With Bats of the Republic, Zachary Thomas Dodson makes his bold entrance into this intriguing genre. Dodson, who co-founded the independent publishing company Featherproof Books and has designed a number of releases under that flagship, spares no effort in his hyper-ambitious first novel. Parallel storylines convolve in a 19th-century Republic of Texas with a dystopian American future. The two threads twist and tangle, creating a whirlpool of events in which time gets lost and readers struggle to discern which, if either, of the two worlds really exists. Amidst this confusion, Dodson sprinkles dozens of hand-drawn illustrations, page prints from a fake 19th-century novel and a sealed envelope whose contents become the maypole that both stories dance around. An incredible attention to detail marks all of these illuminations, but the book’s lofty design fails to overcome the unleveled pacing and lack of suspense that hollow out the story within its beautiful shell.
The first of Bats of the Republic’s two plotlines follows naturalist Zadock Thomas as he journeys into a Republic of Texas embroiled in its violent struggle for independence. His quest: to deliver a mysterious letter to the enigmatic General Irion. Dodson’s primary source for Zadock’s tale comes through the letters Zadock pens to his beloved Elswyth, whom he hopes to wed upon his return to Chicago. As a testament to the book’s overwhelmingly detailed design, Dodson renders Zadock’s handwriting in these notes with ink mixed according to a mid-19th century receipt. Excerpts from the novel-within-a-novel The Sisters Gray complement these letters, serving as the reader’s periscope into the domestic drama unfolding in Chicago while Zadock treks towards Texas.
Three hundred years in the future, America has collapsed into seven city-states where a rigid social structure keeps an endangered human population afloat. In this steampunk dystopia, secrets are forbidden, and Zeke Thomas has just inherited a sealed envelope whose contents are unknown to both Zeke and the government’s omniscient archivists. Henry Bartle, one such archivist and the estranged father of Zeke’s fiancée Eliza, attempts to map Zeke’s influential bloodline as a gift to his daughter. In doing so, he stumbles across Zadock’s letters to Elswyth and an archived copy of The Sisters Gray, casting doubt upon the lineage that would make Zeke a senator. Dodson narrates this dystopian future through a collection of private letters, transcripts recorded by government eavesdroppers and, most confusingly, through the science fiction novel The City-State written 300 years ago by Elswyth’s precognizant mother. This duality of the novel-within-a-novel concept obscures the relationship between the past and the future, creating what eventually becomes one of the book’s most fascinating mysteries.
From these dueling threads, the novel erupts into an enjoyable adventure tale that oscillates between exciting and frustrating, ultimately landing somewhere in the middle. The plot revolves around Zeke’s indecision to open a letter whose contents, like Chekov’s rifle, inevitably must be revealed. Crippled by his brooding temperament, Zeke floats from page to page waiting for events to unfold, making him more of an observer than an engaging protagonist. The book moves forward without him, though, driven by the interplay amongst the many narrators.
Dodson struggles to juggle this ambitious multi-threaded storyline, however, as different perspectives often interfere with each other to negate suspense before it has ripened. Early in the novel, for instance, Zeke loses his grandfather’s letter, creating a tension that could elevate his story to something more than just waiting. This excitement crumbles only three pages of text later when another narrator’s private note reveals the letter’s location. With one protagonist rendered impotent by indecision and a tendency towards self-defusing suspense, the stumbling plot finds some measure of salvation in Zadock’s heartwarming attempts to balance his duties to Elswyth, her father and his naturalist’s passion for bats. Dodson renders this 19th-century drama with a much more convincing hand, creating a believable and heartfelt romance that redeems much of Zeke’s post-apocalyptic ennui.
On a more concrete note, Bats of the Republic lapses into hollow and unnatural prose with a disappointing regularity. Dodson himself seems aware of this shortcoming. In a tongue-in-cheek moment of self-awareness, Bartle refers to The Sisters Gray as a “flimsy and melodramatic” story that is “overwrought, gossipy, preoccupied with social norms and dripping with overelaborate illustrations.” Peeking around the fourth wall, this off-hand criticism of Dodson’s novel-within-a-novel could be applied equally well to portions of Bats of the Republic.
In fairness, the quantity of awkward prose is on par for a first time novelist, and Dodson also appears to be aware of where his true strength lies. He follows his criticisms of The Sisters Gray by describing Elswyth’s father’s preference for novels of the finest workmanship: “If a book is crafted unconvincingly we would refuse to read it on grounds of aesthetics.” Dodson has undoubtedly crafted his novel with the utmost care, and its ornate trappings go a long way towards distracting from the stilted writing.
In Bats of the Republic, Zachary Thomas Dodson has created a Möbius strip of a novel. Like a Möbius strip, however, the story never truly goes anywhere and leaves only the vague sense that something has occured. Artfully designed and enthusiastically conceived, Bats of the Republic demonstrates Dodson’s visionary ambition, but clumsy missteps leave the rookie author lost in the complex maze of his own making. Nevertheless, the novel remains a work of beauty. Full page sketches of buildings and animals, handwritten love notes, pamphlets and maps create a consuming, if confusing, world for Dodson’s characters. Bats of the Republic may lack a well-rounded plot, but Dodson’s talent as a designer shines through to create an impressive first entry into the illuminated novel genre.
Evan MacQuarrie is a graduate student in Ithaca, NY.