Although I try to avoid placing unrealistic expectations on authors, I strongly suspected that I’d like NOS4A2. I was not disappointed. I’d previously enjoyed 20th Century Ghosts, Heart-Shaped Box, and Horns. I love the Locke and Key series and find Joe Hill to be a genuinely enjoyable presence on twitter (albeit a bit politically conservative by Boulder standards). When I saw the premise of his upcoming novel and read the advance praise, I offered to trade my little finger in exchange for a review copy. Seriously. I have no shame. Thankfully, William Morrow required no such sacrifice and I received my review copy with all digits intact. Having recently finished the epic tale, I can assure you the sacrifice would quite possibly have been worth it.
NOS4A2 violates almost every ‘literary’ rule imaginable (starting with the title) and does so with charm and style. It’s eloquent without being pretentious, experimental without being confusing, simple without being stupid, playful without being silly. It is almost certainly genre fiction (horror). However, if you define literary fiction as ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas’, then NOS4A2 certainly qualifies as that too. What Hill has written is a genre-bending, label defying, character driven novel that also happens to feature a vampire, an alternate reality, and a smattering of scenes that will make your skin crawl. It is, quite simply, exceptional.
I hesitate to try and summarize the sprawling plot because I cannot do it justice and run the risk of making it sound silly. It’s not. NOS4A2 tells the story of Victoria McQueen, Vic to most and The Brat to her father. Vic has a special talent, she can find lost things. She gets on her Tuff Burner bike and pedals across a bridge to the desired item. There are others who can exploit this break in reality. Charles Talent Manx the third uses his car, the Wraith, to reach the imaginary Christmasland. Maggie, a librarian, uses magical Scrabble tiles to find answers (without proper nouns, of course). Vic, feeling particularly petulant after a fight with her mother, goes looking for trouble. And trouble is Charlie Manx and his esurient creations. She finds him and he, being the malignant being he is, tries to kill her. She survives and Manx is apprehended, but the terror doesn’t stop there. Their shared ability to move through reality connects them and sets Vic’s life, and that of her boyfriend and son, on a collision course with Manx and his minions.
As easy as it would be to label this novel as simply a fantastic horror novel (which it is), it is also a study in character and relationships. There is no doubt Vic is troubled. She grew up in a home with parental tension, and though that’s not unique, her ability to find desired objects is. After a particularly vicious teenage fight with her mother, she uses her portal to find trouble and it’s that which changes the course of her life forever. She loses the ability, she believes, to tell the real from the imaginary. She meets a man that she doesn’t want to love, but does anyway. Vic struggles with her relationship with her mother and doubts her ability to care for her son. These relationships, how they’re defined and redefined, are the core of the story and it’s wonderful to see a strong female narrative.
The struggle of the characters to love and be loved, to embrace the roles they were born to fulfill, is complex and realistic while set against the backdrop of the unreal. If you’re concerned that this is ‘not your genre’, I’d advise you to rethink your boundaries and consider NOS4A2 – things don’t have to be true to feel real. If you’re concerned about being disturbed or uncomfortable, I can’t promise that won’t happen, because NOS4A2 is disturbing. Charlie Manx drains the humanity from children and enjoys it. He manipulates weak men, one at a time, into becoming his own personal Renfield. He is not a good guy, but he’s not wholly unsympathetic either. It takes talent to paint the world in shades of grey and Joe Hill does so (seemingly) effortlessly.
Hill proves you don’t have to be ‘serious’ to write a serious novel. The novel, at times, is genuinely funny. Starting with the title, NOS4A2 is filled with puns, wordplay, and pop culture – Manx drives a Wraith, carries a silver hammer, and lives in a sleigh house, Vic rides a Triumph and when it speaks to her it says ‘Hiyo, Silver’, she is the finder of lost things and the creator of the children’s series ‘Search Engine’, she lives across from the de Zoet’s (who listen to the Cloud Atlas sextet), and her son’s full name is Bruce Wayne Carmody, The pop culture references, while not the crowning achievement of the novel, add to the reader’s sense of inclusion without distracting from the story. And what can I say, I like puns – as I’ve quoted before a pun is to wordplay what dominatrix sex is to foreplay – a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure.
Read NOS4A2*. It does what great literature should do – bridges the gap between head and heart, real and imaginary, writing and storytelling. Although it will most likely be categorized in the horror genre, NOS4A2 is also part thriller, fantasy, and literary fiction. It’s a remarkable novel that will certainly be one of the best books of the year. 5/5.
On the personal side of things, this book was quite fun for me as an individual. A large portion of the novel takes place about 45 minutes south of where I grew up. After Vic’s father and mother divorce, her father moves to my hometown (check out the picturesque town I called home). Another large chunk of the story takes place about 45 minutes north of where I live now in Colorado. I felt geographically in the know. Also, as regular readers are aware, I love novels that have characters named Rory (even if they only make a one page appearance, as is the case here). Presenting librarians as the all knowing gatekeepers of the universe that we are doesn’t hurt either. Finally, it has more wordplay and pop culture references than you can shake a stick at. NOS4A2 is a road map to my little literary heart.
This book has quite a few passing references to food – turkey dinners, frappes, pancakes. But Bing’s favorite smell seems to be gingerbread, so you can make gingerbread people while listening to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
*Review copy provided in exchange for my honest opinion.