BOOK REVIEW: MILES KLEE’S IVYLAND
It’s been a long decade. The visceral impact of 9/11, the plunge into prolonged war, the bank failures, and the presidential elections getting turned into a reality TV show have created an undercurrent of paranoia in society. Google owns all of our data. The Internet we depend on is spying on us. There’s no one single threat, but instead a barrage of missiles constantly weakening our personal senses of reality. It’s this contemporary surreality that makes Miles Klee’s satirical debut novel Ivyland (OR Books) feel less like a 1984-style parable and more like a prediction of what the United States will be like in a decade. Weird things happen in Ivyland, but things are so strange in our own world that the book’s narrative isn’t entirely out of the question. It is this proximity to contemporary society that gives Klee’s dark satire its devastating effect.
Told from the rotating perspectives of a group of characters, the novel takes place in a New Jersey even more dystopic than our own. The invention of a sinister medical procedure called “VV” has turned the population either into desperate drug addicts or, for those allergic to the anesthetic gas used to perform the operation, brain-dead zombies. It is this operation that inspired Ivyland’s powerful cover, a flesh-toned gas mask that hovers somewhere between a medical device and a human face.
Ivyland’s inhabitants include characters such as Hecuba, an aging bus driver with an ever-loosening grip on sanity, her son DH, whose benders take him to such locales as “Filthydelphia,” and Aidan, whose front yard has become a holy shrine following a lightning strike. The only restaurant in town is a fast-food purveyor called MexiLickin’SurfHog. Ivyland is a nation of ecstatic, hilarious details, and it’s in these details, intensified by Klee’s prose, that the book is most enjoyable.
Klee is a young veteran of a particular circle of New York publications. He has contributed articles, essays, and satire to the New York Observer and Vanity Fair and maintained a consistent presence as the Awl’s resident fiction writer with a series of short stories, snapshots, and literary listicles like “A Few Environments,” “Eleven Impossibilities,” and “24 Varieties of Silence” that built familiarity with his work and characteristic style. His writing works well online; in small, quick doses, Klee’s tightly hallucinogenic prose and penchant for bursts of description turns sentences into explosives.
Experienced over the course of a novel, however, those same tendencies fracture the propulsive narrative into a confusing splintering of tangents. The world Klee has created is sprawling, magnificent, and ambitious, but like his tragic driver Hecuba, the writer’s control falters at times. Cal, Aidan’s brother, is an astronaut hurtling toward a certain static death. He seems to exist only to reflect on the action back at home, recalling shared memories, even while Klee’s earthbound protagonists seem like they could use more dialogue. What we gain as readers in bombast (and it’s a huge, entertaining gain), we lose in depth. Klee doesn’t give his audience the sense of inhabiting his characters’ bodies and minds and experiencing the action with them.
Reading Ivyland’s best chapters is like having a sustained salvia trip: the reader sees the world deconstructed and fitfully reassembled into jagged parts that rarely fit together. Aidan’s recollection of a high school night spent in a shore house starts like a familiar memory of adolescence and ends in a violent, otherworldly drug spiral. Here, Klee hews closely to the humanity of his characters and ends up with something funny, bizarre, and touching. It would be easier to call Ivyland great instead of just powerful if Klee had maintained this intimacy throughout the rest of the book, rather than zooming out into the stratosphere, herding a cast of misfits that readers aren’t driven to care enough about.
The persistent humanity of Klee’s characters is what makes them sympathetic to the reader in an entirely unsympathetic world where this is no justice and little logic. Ivyland isn’t hell, but rather an inescapable purgatory where the chance at resolution is denied and the bizarre becomes mundane. “What’s the difference between eternal life and taking forever to die?” a character asks at the book’s final apex. Klee’s conclusion is that they are the same, a point that he reiterates in a conversation with Interview magazine: “Boredom inspires, I think, a different kind of cruelty.”
The sentiment is similar to Bret Easton Ellis, another black comedian. But Klee’s boredom, his vision of purgatory, is less strung out and more ecstatic. The author is at heart a humanist, albeit one who casts his players in apocalyptic circumstances. If Klee could expose that messy, emotional tendency a little more, he might just make the dystopia in our time a little more bearable.