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Friday, October 23, 2009

Eli Brown's _ The Great Days _, reviewed by Julia Bloch

Eli Brown
The Great Days
ISBN 9781893448056
Boaz, 2009
Fiction. Paperback, 288 pp.

Reviewed by Julia Bloch

The literature of utopia has always contained within it the situation, even the certainty, of dystopia. The biggest lessons from communities designed according to a version of the ideal often come into view when we understand how utter failure was written into the original blueprints. But what kind of in-between space do we navigate between the ideal and the disastrous, or between the ideal and the banal space of the everyday? In a 1967 lecture, Michel Foucault proposed that apart from the fundamentally unreal space of the utopia—an idealized site with no tangible expression in the real world—modern civilization is characterized by the heterotopia, the “other space” or “counter-space” from which we can imagine alternative ways of being in the world. The heterotopia is the space—Foucault compares it to a mirror—from which we see where we are not. We see that we do not live in utopia; we do not live in the world we would imagine for ourselves had we the chance. This view is both terrible and instructive: from the heterotopia we see the possibility of the ideal life, the possibility of alternatives to the everyday. But we also understand that we do not live in the ideal, and this realization is profoundly disruptive to our experience of the real.

Eli Brown’s debut novel The Great Days tells the story of August Russ, who is beginning to view the utopian ideals of the Arizona desert compound he calls home (referred to only as the Center) from an in-between space: he’s not quite disillusioned, but not completely buying it, either. When the book opens, August is a faithful citizen of the cult; other community members look to him as an authoritative figure, and he is being groomed for a formalized version of that role. Two key moments of betrayal by camp leadership raise the specter of abuse in the community and shake August’s faith enough that he flees the desert for the nearest city. August is so shaken, in fact, that his grip on reality is threatened: injured, confused, weak, and unable to reconnect with his family, he tries but fails to find his grounding in mainstream society. So when August is urged to return to the desert, he does, but with a newfound fierce determination to return the Center to its best ideals. August takes over leadership of the cult, with predictably complicated results.

When we first meet August, he steps away from a meditating group of his fellow cult members like “a match fallen from a box.” The metaphor is quiet, but instructive: August will soon be falling away from the core structures of the community that once sustained his faith in an ideal way of being in the world, and the consequences for those who surround him will be disastrous. August isn’t yet aware of how precarious the situation is: meeting up with “Papa,” the charismatic and egomaniacal camp leader, August’s perspective is almost cloying. “August looked up to see Papa smiling down on him, wet as a newborn with an ancient face,” Brown writes. “Papa’s hair grew so quickly!” The single-mindedness of Brown’s first-person narrative style frequently makes it difficult to see August from the outside, and this formal approach neatly models the hermeticism of cult life. But Brown’s suggestions of the community’s decay also keep the book from ever flattening August’s journey.

At the book’s opening, the community seems filled with a dry, creeping sort of danger: the camp has been overrun by invasive beetles; a skeletal, possibly imaginary, dog is haunting August; Papa has fallen ill with strange cognitive and verbal failings and calls on August to interpret his messages for the community. Despite all this, Brown fills his narrator with a basically earnest faith in all the trappings of the compound: its vaguely Eastern spiritualism, its ascetic approach to food and other sensual needs, the way each member’s individuality is being filed down like a soft metal. August seems comforted by the rigid order; he blames his own ego (or, rather, an abstract camp notion of capitalized “Ego”) whenever he finds himself chafing against the rules. “No more unconscious living,” he tells his sister in a letter home. “This is the best decision I’ve ever made.” August is a dutiful recruit; we even get the sense that some of the camp’s longterm members are irritated by his sincerity.

At the same time, there are signs he’s catching on to the precarious nature of cult life, and Brown communicates much of this turn with vivid descriptions of the finer details that frame August’s everyday existence: the thinning bodies of the recruits; the weak stalks of the camp’s crops; the harsh, exposed desert setting. The bleakness of the Arizona desert seems even to be written into August’s own vulnerable physicality, and Brown’s descriptions of the body contrast startlingly with his narrator’s apparent confidence. When Papa crosses a line in their fragile social compact, August goes into crisis and makes a series of erratic, unsettling choices that threaten his community’s sustainability. Those choices are all set against a blistering-hot backdrop that serves as a metaphor for August’s raw emotional state.

When August first leaves the camp for his failed journey into the city, Brown’s prose formalizes the transition as if we were changing lenses in a camera: the hue of the landscape shifts, things once in focus are thrown out of vision, and we suddenly trust our narrator less. I admire that Brown is willing to put distance between us and the novel here: it makes us work harder to follow August’s next steps, and culminates in a nuanced critique of the notion of ideal community. August has told himself a story about the Center, and when that story goes off the rails, so does our relationship to the book’s narrative authority. But not completely: if August occupies a heterotopic space, that space is, as Foucault says, always connected to other kinds of spaces, once isolated and penetrable. In fact, Brown's novel suggests that it is only from this in-between heterotopic space that we can confront the deepest social meanings of cult life, not from the outside or from the banal mainstream. August has to come partway out and then go back in for the next stage to happen.

The title of Brown’s book refers to the vague promise the cult’s leader has made: all their sacrifices to his megalomania will lead to some undefined kind of better life. When he realizes he can’t sustain the leader’s design, August confirms that his community is stuck in a kind of heterotopia, all those promises deferred, gazing into the mirror of impossibility. It’s no surprise that a psychic break appears in the climax of this book: were we truly to realize how out of reach our inherited ideals are, Brown seems to suggest, all hell would break loose.

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Julia Bloch's poems have appeared recently in Cue, the Sidebrow anthology, and Cricket Online Review; her chapbook The Selfist is forthcoming from Katalanché Press. Julia earned an M.F.A. in poetry at Mills College in Oakland and is now a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a co-founder of the Emergency reading series at Kelly Writers House and lives in Philadelphia.