The real test of a novel for me is if it sparks ideas. If it makes me stop reading, flip to the back of the book, and crib down what I think is a completely bulletproof, never-before-thought-of idea.
Joe Hill’s N0S4A2 does that. I just got my copy back — loaned out the night of the reading at Tattered Cover in Denver — and, sure enough, in back and at all angles and in a hand I can hardly read are all these sure-thing best-seller pitches and immortal phrases and overheard-at-the-foodcourt loglines.
Also, associated with the page-numbers of N0S4A2 are plenty of stars and checkmarks, for stuff I want to go back to, steal. The week I read this, a student turned in a paper on a clutch of books I’d assigned. A paper on Hill’s books. And the title of that, it was “Things I Want to Steal from Joe Hill.”
It was pretty detailed list, too.
I’ve added to it, of course.
Anyway, this late in the game, everybody’s already read N0S4A2, so the premise is no secret: there’s these shortcuts through reality, and they exact a terrible price. And it’s especially cool for Boulder and Denver people to read, as a lot of the book happens here in our back yard.
But what I want to call your attention to, it’s two things Hill does . . . or, not ‘does,’ more like ‘exhibits’:
- N0S4A2 has an ethical core. And that’s not at all like a novel having an agenda. And this isn’t so easy to explain. How about: back-when, Janet Burroway had all us in workshop sketch out the value-system we held dear, and felt all delicate and inviolate about, and had never even thought to articulate, it was so much a part of us. And then she told us to look at our own stories and novels (to be), see if they were lining up with those values. What I found — this was nearly twenty years ago — was stuff I still see leaking from my pen. Stories I can’t seem to run out from under, like. That I don’t want to run out from under. I see this in N0S4A2, too: a pretty distinct value system. One that seems to be expressed best by that Triumph motorcycle. You can tell, reading this novel, that everything the Triumph stands for, everything the novel makes that Triumph stand for, that Hill kind of identifies with that. But, at the same time, he’s not arguing for it, he’s not trying to convince us of anything. It’s just something he believes, and it permeates the whole story, provides a kind of dynamo for it all to surge around. The best novels, I think — and it’s taken me a long time to figure this out — they have this kind of ethical core. One that’s completely disinterested in whether I agree with that ethic or not. But the writer’s belief in it, where ‘belief’ really means ‘blind subscription,’ it lets the story cohere and congeal as it needs to, to be real, and stay that way.
- N0S4A2 has surprise acts. Which is to say, there’s points where you think this is it, it can’t go any farther now. Except it does. You can see this a lot more bare in Hill’s Horns, too. Each time you think you’ve got that story figured out, such that the rest of it’s now going to be narrative dominoes falling in their usual story ways — wrong. Five pages later, you’re again in uncharted territory, not quite able to map the dimensions of this space. You just know it’s tense, and you’ve got to run fast. This is what readers like as much as anything, I think. It’s what I like, anyway. N0S4A2 does this as well. And I’m not talking about geographic- or era-dislocation — N0S4A2 spans decades, and states — I’m talking about a story taking hard left turns into what you think was just a wall. But there’s really a Wile E. Coyote painted-on tunnel there. And we’re roadrunnering right on through, thanks very much.
And, for fans of Hill, yeah, everybody here’s still got cool names, no worries. And, for the die-hards, yes, N0S4A2 very much comes through on all the promises we didn’t even realize were promises in Twentieth Century Ghosts. Seriously: go back (I did), read some of those stories. So many of them are N0S4A2 in seed-form. And somehow it makes them even cooler. And, finally, yes, I’m one of the people who knew about the book for a good long while before finally figuring out how to ‘say’ that title. It’s not easy being a loser. But I guess it’s not that hard, either.
Also, was thinking, for when Hill came to town, I’d get a Colorado license plate dummied up with that title, give it to him, but then I realized that, to do that, I’d of course have to throw a brick through a liquor store window, draw a bad attorney, get two to five, and finally graduate to my work detail of pressing license plates. At which point I could sneak a N0S4A2 through, have a guard smuggle it out, all that. But then I couldn’t find a brick of the proper heft. So I wrote this instead.