The rule in Kafka’s Metamorphosis is not only that it’s possible to turn into a bug but that Gregor Samsa, the bug/man himself, will accept that fact without curiosity. It’s easy to forget that there are other ways to tell a story in which such a transformation is possible. The bug/man might become a celebrity, or he might become the object of great scientific interest, or he might triumphantly discover a cure for his condition. That none of these things happen in Metamorphosis is not the reason for the story’s success. What makes it great is the mode and manner of its presentation: the way the narrator, like Gregor Samsa, treats the central problem as a practical inconvenience.
This is obvious enough, but the general rule is worth some consideration. Any story that takes place in a world that is not our own can be understood in two ways. There is the logic of the alternate reality, which must remain internally consistent in order for that reality to be acceptable, and there is the logic of the presentation—how the story is told, how the author chooses to reveal the details of that reality. Metamorphosis is one of the great ideas in literature, but the idea is the How, not the What.
Meeks, Julia Holmes’s first novel, also takes place in an unfamiliar world, one in which young men must spend something like one "season"—spring and summer and early fall—as a kind of professional bachelor. A bachelor must wear a pale suit, cultivate a skill or distinguishing attribute and visit the park each day in search of a woman to marry. Some men may choose to postpone their bachelorhood by joining the army, which involves wandering through the woods in search of an enemy who doesn’t exist, but doing so may prove a critical waste of time. Some bachelors last no more than a season, and some hang on for a few years, but all bachelors who fail to marry can expect a horrible end—a slow death, a violent death or a miserable career as an enslaved "civil servant."
It’s easy to imagine how a story set in this world could become a tiresome allegory, but Meeks is never overbearing or routine. One reason is the strength of Holmes’s writing—her voice is brisk and beautiful, full of a jittery sadness and an uncontrollable kind of joy—but another reason is the way she manages our access to information. We know only what the characters know, which means that we experience the same critical gaps in our understanding and we don’t ever see how it’s possible to succeed in the bachelor’s world. The important thing is not what happens, or why, but how awful it is when something else unaccountably fails to happen. That effect is possible only if the story takes place in an alternate reality, because it depends on our not knowing anything more than Holmes tells us. The fact that the novel remains compelling throughout is a triumph of form and style more than anything else.
We get most of our information about the bachelor’s life from Ben, one of the two protagonists. Ben has just finished his army service and returned home to find that his mother has died, her house has been "reassigned" and the pale suit he was to have inherited from his father has been given away. Without a pale suit, he can’t hope to win the heart of a young woman, but he isn’t allowed to work until he’s married, which means that he can’t earn the money to buy a suit until he has a suit. He is a condemned man—as another character says, a "death-by-attrition variation on the doomed-no-matter-what theme"—but he engages in an earnest struggle nevertheless.
The other principal character is a man named Meeks, also the name of the city’s founder. Meeks is unmarried, but he is not officially a bachelor, which makes his status a matter of some confusion. Since everyone in this world must occupy some distinct position, Meeks is occasionally referred to as "the park bum," but nothing about him is certain. He sleeps in the park, he might be a foreigner, he might be crazy and he is obsessed with a man in a black jacket who might be his father. He thinks he’s a policeman because he has a relationship—the nature of which turns out to be sinister—with the chief of police. But his marginal position does give him a kind of insight that other characters don’t have, and now and then he looks like Plato’s philosopher: he is able to poke his head out of the cave.
Meeks is a novel with multiple narrators. Like any literary device, multiple narrators are not necessarily good or bad—they work as well as the author can make them work—but many writers use them as a way to suggest a depth that doesn’t exist or to get around logistical problems they can’t solve, like getting characters from here to there. Holmes isn’t guilty of this, partly because her story is interesting enough in its own right and partly because she manages to sidestep the issue.
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A novel with multiple narrators can do various things. It can tell the same story in different ways. It can tell different, closely related, often intersecting stories. It can tell stories that don’t intersect at all and between which a connection must be inferred. It can tell stories that are linked causally but between which a great deal of time has elapsed. Writers will almost always commit to a particular strategy, however, which is why it’s so surprising and unsettling that Holmes seems to do all of these things at once. Ben and Meeks live in the same world at the same time, but they are present in the same scene only once. Their experience overlaps in an indirect way, but at the moment we expect their stories to intersect, the novel ends. There are also sections narrated by Ben’s father, who is removed from the story in time, and by an unnamed civil servant whose life appears coincident with the story but whose connection with it is never clarified. Sometimes there are delicate harmonies among sections, and sometimes there is no connection whatsoever.
In general, the effect is to clarify things that no character can reliably explain on his own. If Ben can see only the front of something and Meeks only the back, we can see both sides. This is one way of giving the reader a clearer understanding of traditions or institutions—the annual independence day celebration, for instance—about which individual characters might have limited information. I also like the way small details are carried from one section to the next. Everybody eats "city mints," produced on a large scale by civil servants, and both Ben and Meeks spend some time trying to decipher the municipal seal printed on them. Ben thinks it might be "a hunk of precious ore crossed by swords," and Meeks thinks it’s "a human heart crossed by shafts of wheat." This confusion reveals less about the characters than about the mints, because the truth of the city mint is not that something in particular is printed on it. The truth—the thing that’s critical to the experience of looking at the mint—is that whatever is printed on it is indecipherable. The precise rendering of this detail would be impossible with a single narrator, because we’d be inclined to attribute confusion of that sort to a deficiency in the narrator’s perceptual or descriptive powers.
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Sentence by sentence, Meeks is as good as it gets. But what is it all about? At the beginning, it’s easy to think of it as a book about marriage. Young men pass through childhood, an experience that almost always takes place within the context of the parents’ marriage, and unless something is badly wrong they become a bachelor and begin hunting for a wife. If they find a wife quickly enough, they stand a chance of living well and growing old. If not, terrible things will happen. The novel dramatizes a fear with which we’re all familiar: if it’s the custom to get married, what happens if we’re unable to find someone willing to marry us? Here, the worst thing we imagine is the thing that happens.
But the story is larger than this. "Bachelor" is an occupation that precedes one’s initiation into other occupations, so Meeks is also about the struggle to move past the probationary period of one’s bachelorhood and identify oneself with a profession. Profession turns out to matter a great deal in this world, and the identities of older men are so inseparable from their work that these men lack names. They are known simply as "the tailor" or "the butcher," and their absorption in their work is such that they often behave like automatons. Garbagemen wander the city and discard anything that isn’t moving, including people who are standing still. But since a man can’t get a job until he finds a wife, and since he has no choice but to get a job after he finds a wife, profession and marriage are part of the same obligation—the obligation to be or become something that others will recognize as an adult. This is what Ben and the other bachelors are struggling with, and Meeks, in that sense, is a book about the problem of youth: that terrible worry that we will fail, because of injustice or bad luck or something we can’t put our finger on, to become anything at all.
But that’s not it either, or that’s not all. We learn in those sections narrated by Ben’s father and the civil servant that anxiety doesn’t end with bachelorhood, and that success or failure in one’s early life might lead to the same dissatisfactions later on. There are moments when Ben seems to understand this. At first, he explains the discomfort of bachelorhood by saying, "this is but a necessary passage, and life is waiting just beyond it." Later he isn’t sure. In a moment of contentment, he says to himself, "Life would be so simple if this were life," and he wonders, "Why not just live in the world one already inhabits, rather than pining and planning endlessly for the next?"
At its best, Meeks is really a novel about desire and ambition. What is it that everyone tells us we should want? What is it we think we should want? What do we really want? How can we possibly tell the difference? These are questions that all the main characters wrestle with, and Holmes is very good at describing the confusion of that struggle. Ben thinks about "the great and thrilling imprecision of desire." His father, who has already passed through the bachelor stage, longs for "the thin illusion of life…to be displaced by the brutal, enormous, beautiful certainty of something greater." The civil servant can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a family man, which to him is a man who has decided "to be ordinary, to spend his days going soft…listening deadfaced to the endless narrations of the large and small creatures around him."
The problems of this world are insoluble, and Meeks is a very grim book. But it isn’t, for all that, a despairing book. Its characters have access to a vague sort of hope, even if it can’t save them, and they are able to express themselves so beautifully—so clearly and economically—and to speak with such wonder about the things they love, that I’m not much bothered by the atmosphere of doom. Here, for instance, is Ben eating a pastry and thinking about memory: "He wished it were possible to keep things—the granite pinks of the autumn sky, the charred pilings of the collapsed piers, the sugar on his tongue—permanent and vivid without compressing them into memories." Even at his most dejected, his voice rings with lyric delight.
And so, even if the language of Meeks is often enough the language of despair, it’s so pure and new that I can feel the joy in it, and the joy that Julia Holmes takes in it. I think this is a lovely paradox: a book written as well as this one—even if it’s a book in which life seems impossible—can wake us up to the possibilities of life.