The Desert Places offers a beautiful history of evil. It is as dark and violent as you expect, but roughly ten thousand books published in the last year were dark and violent. This work is distinguished by its construction.
First, the collaborators (authors Robert Kloss and Amber Sparks and illustrator Matt Kish) use a variety of structures and schemes to develop their subject. The novel is partly a survey of nine periods of history, including the darkness of prehistory and a dystopian future which reads like a Terminator-movie flash-forward. Narrative sequences are sometimes told from the first and more often from the second person point of view. Other sections include an interview between the Alpha and the Omega. Chapters are separated by short, italicized sections titled [. . . An Incomplete History of What Passes for Evil . . .].
The most distinctive and beautiful pages belong to Kish’s illustrations of, among other things, skeletal sperm and a multi-mouthed orb-shaped monster. The style of art may remind readers of Pushead’s designs for old Metallica t-shirts. They are, first, morbidly attractive, but they more than accompany the text. Over the course of the book, that orb-shaped monster gains and loses and regains mouths; becomes increasingly linked with and physically joined to skeletons; and is briefly made to disappear in the midst of a city’s rise. But the monster returns again, and with more mouths than ever. Its variations underline one idea of history suggested in the prose: that men think they are civilizing evil out of their lives when they are, at best, covering it with concrete and government. That cover does not save men from extinction.
Both the variety and the visual appeal of the novel call to mind William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In his poem, Blake reworks traditional definitions of heaven and hell and their citizens. Here, Kloss and Sparks begin with a glossary in which terms like “love” are redefined as an “unimaginable need . . . no matter how much skin you inhale, no matter how many bones you snap, you will never learn to satiate it.” The need is not just for violence but for continual newness. Murder begins with intense pleasure and devolves into boredom and exhaustion.
These writers rework tales as well as terms. In their creation story, paragraphs of questions make the “you” interestingly ambiguous. “Did you sell them the pleasures of your garden? And “Did you build the shape of man into the rocks to know the joy of murdering him?” splice together our ideas of God and the serpent. The sentences, when they come, only add to the mystery: “You must have plucked your ribs . . .” and “You must have said, ‘Father, make for me a friend so I may slay him.’” These lines suggest that the God-serpent is also, in part, a less-than-innocent Adam.
This “you” figure occasionally borrows names from now obsolete cultures, like Herne (pagan England) and World Encircler (ancient Egypt). He represents our urge to violence, but he often acts as a finisher. What humans begin, he ends. When the audience at the Roman Coliseum gets tired of standard gladiatorial combat, wild animals are added to the mix. Only later, the “you” enters to kill animals, fighters, and audience alike.
He shares the audience’s weariness. As the glossary has suggested, he thirsts–we all do–for new beginnings. Man’s apparent progress from prehistoric savage to rational thinker of science has given him some thrills, but they do not last. The “you” grows bored with Romans, inquisitors, and astronauts alike. He often becomes bored by himself and his urge. This becomes most evident at the novel’s end. Mankind is dying off after a nuclear war. It ought to be a great time for him, but the “you” kills “with sighs, with yawns.” The empty world looks as it did at the creation, a dusty rock where the “you” feeds on bugs and worms. He considers two possibilities. The first is to face the horror of himself and commit suicide. The second is to wait for the world to renew itself, again grow green with life and noisy with men, enabling him to resume his old ways. He considers them, but does nothing.
But the book’s greatest wonder may be that three artists—one illustrator and two writers—have put together a project so fluid and coherent. A collaborative novel faces at least three dangers: that the styles of its contributors will clash; that it will be too easy to discern the weaknesses of each contributor relative to others; or, on the other hand, that the strengths of each contributor will be diluted as a result of the team effort. Kish’s illustrations, as I have said, fit well. The prose works at all levels, down to the words and even the letters. Consider this gem: “Had you a mother, she would have smelled like this, of milk and dank and blood and mold.” The sounds of the four adjectives complement one another. The m’s, k’s, d’s, and l’s shift positions with the advance of the sentence, appearing and disappearing as we move from the familiar sweetness of mother’s milk to the wretchedness of mold. This sort of prose does not suggest clashes, weaknesses, or dilutions. It suggests a great unity of purpose and, moreover, achievement.