Sunday, August 1, 2010

Having Your Cake: Julia Holmes’s Meeks

“Men and women ordered cookies and slices of cake, and wheresoever they pointed, their wishes were fulfilled, and they fell into reverent silence as they ate, their minds bitten by the soft, sugary nips of memory – Things are just as they’ve always been, let us be thankful – each sweet bite is like a sacrament, a little portal easily pried open with a fork, a hole through which one can squeeze one’s senses and return to the days of hope and innocence and excitement and fear.”

I don’t know about you but I think “weird” is very good when it comes to dystopias. Which means I’m happy to report that Julia Holmes’s Meeks is a weird dystopian novel that’s largely (or at least often) about happiness and marriage. In Holmes’s unnamed place, bachelors need light-colored suits to woo wives. Bachelors live in cramped bachelor houses and scout out women in the park and at listening parties. I came away with the impression that marriage promises a spacious house and a lifelong picnic with lots of sweets.

So woe is the bachelor lacking the resources for a light suit. A bachelor like Ben, who’s a bachelor in a black mourning suit. Ben’s also a veteran of a strange war, and he can’t convince the tailor to sew him a suit. He sometimes sits at the tailor’s shop, staring out the window and watching the butcher across the street. Without that bachelor suit, Ben is pretty much in mourning for his life, not just his mother: if he doesn’t marry, he’ll be pressed into a life of government service.

Meeks contains other dark tones and plotlines. As Ben tries to acquire a suit, a character who spends a lot of time in the park and is apparently a policeman, tries to acquire a gun. And the book opens with two “brothers,” civil servants, going to the annual independence day celebration and execution; one brings a homemade explosive device that includes gunpowder he’s stored in a tea tin. The book concludes with an independence day celebration, too, with the policeman-like character taking a key role in the theatrical proceedings. As he watches something unexpected, he thinks “What a heartbreaking and beautiful sight!” That sums up the ending for me, too. I’ve read it over and over.

Meeks is a fairly cryptic book (another thing I seem to like in dystopian novels) but it’s not so cryptic – or bleak or lacking in humor – that it’s unenjoyable. Maybe I’m too obsessed with Russian fiction, but Meeks reminded me as much of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” as classic dystopias like 1984. (I have an entry about “The Overcoat” on my Russian blog here.) Common elements with Gogol include a poor man’s difficulties buying a new piece of clothing that he hopes will improve his life, theft of clothing, drudge work, and the use of “brother” for someone who is not a blood relative. “Brother” also flashed me back to A Clockwork Orange, which has been on my mind since I reread it earlier this year (previous post).

Holmes’s writing has a concentrated and almost retro feel, and that, along with repetition and occasional neologisms, gives the book an air of Someplace Familiar But Not Quite Here. Here’s a sentence-paragraph to illustrate:

“Ben could see sailors on the ships that bobbed in the fresh white surf, the needlelike masts bristling, the shapes of people at ease in the park or bustling along the grand avenues, and along the edges of every scene, the murky figures, shadowantine, ashamed, the gray laborers armed with their pronged garbage stabbers, stabbing at scraps of shadow along the periphery.”

Though Holmes’s language is generally simple and routine, she includes just enough rogue elements – like that “shadowantine,” which is clear but odd – to gently toss the reader into that other place. A place with a whole lot of cake. I love cake, but I would not want to live there. Like cake, though, Meeks seems to keep growing on me.

Thank you to Small Beer Press for giving me a copy of Meeks at Book Expo America. I’m glad the book caught my eye when I walked past the booth: I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Julia Holmes, the kind person from Small Beer Press whose name I wish I remembered, and then reading Meeks.

The Small Beer Press page for Meeks (this one) includes links to excerpts from the book.

Photo credit: iprole via


  1. Hi Lisa,
    Great review. I have this on my review shelf too, and you've made me want to let it cut in line! Ever have books that pressure you, like the cool kids in school, to move ahead of the rest? (Look at my shiny spine and embossed letters...I'm from a small translated press...I'm exclusive! Can I cut, please???)

    I'm such a dork.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Amy: I completely understand this phenomenon! The books that seem to pressure me most are new Russian novels, particularly books shortlisted for prizes. They push all the classics aside. I think I let them by because I don't usually know much about them, meaning there's a bigger sense of discovery.

    As for Meeks, I thought it was quite good, in that cryptic sense I think fits dystopias. There's a lot more going on than what I mentioned, and I'm sure different readers identify more with different lines in it, so I'm very interested to read what you think of it!