This is an exceedingly difficult book to review. It would be a great choice for a book club discussion, with a selection of intelligent readers who have all devoured the book debating each other as to what it means and what it's really about. But it's a tough one to review because spoilers.
I think I can say that it's a fantastic novel, both in quality and material covered, but it's not a fantasy. It's general fiction, the sort that has 'A Novel' somewhere on the front cover (which, hey, it does). Sure, it has suggestive language in the back cover blurb, not merely where it describes a 'world of man-eating giants, demons, and colossal insects' but where it says 'odyssey' and 'quest' too. Magary is Homer if he might be possessed by Kafka.
I can start in on a synopsis too, though I shouldn't go too far. Our protagonist is Ben, who may or may not have a last name, and he's from Maryland though he isn't there as the novel begins; he's checking into a hotel in Pennsylvania, 75 miles out of New York City, on a business trip to meet a vendor. He decides to kill a little time by taking a walk through the surrounding Poconos, even though the clueless clerk was unaware of the trail he finds. And, as quickly as page 11, it all goes horribly wrong.
He stumbles on a man with the face of a Rottweiler, who is dragging the corpse of a girl out of a shed, a corpse with no feet. On spying Ben, this apparent murderer chases him with a large butcher's knife. Just as Ben thinks he's about to escape, a second man, also with the face of a Rottweiler, appears to flank him and, while he does get away, it's only to realise that he's not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and all bets are most certainly off.
From there, it gets progressively stranger and there's little point me delving into the details because they won't mean anything here anyway. We might wonder if it means anything even as we read except for the clues that Magary secreted in the first few pages. That corpse was small and wore a cupcake nightgown; a little girl in a cupcake nightgown was running barefoot around a table in the lobby of the hotel, while her mother shouts at her to stop because the floor isn't clean. Clearly, whatever is happening to Ben is tied to the real world that he apparently just left, for reasons that we certainly haven't been let in on yet.
What's more, we can't examine this in much detail, partly because Ben only spent a few pages in the real world and partly because they don't contain all the data we need. While seemingly throwaway comments do find fantastic parallels in this new world, if we cared enough to have filed away seemingly throwaway comments just in case they might be needed later (hello, second-biggest cricket I've ever seen), plenty of its aspects are there for reasons we aren't told about until much later, if at all.
All we know is that Ben is stuck in a different world, which does not follow the laws of physics or nature, being tasked with an unexplained mission by person or persons unknown. That's not a lot to go on, right? Well, he quickly learns that he has to follow the Path, which is usually laid out in front of him like a video game, and bad things happen if he strays. He gradually learns the rules and things proceed very much in the risk/reward fashion of a video game; the surrealistic reasoning for everything to exist feels like different levels and even the sarcastic sidekick who shows up on the Courtshire beach feels like a video game character. He's an eagerly nameless talking crab.
Well, there is one other thing we know, if we read the pages of praise that books with 'A Novel' plastered onto their front covers tend to have as soon as we turn the first page. Quite a few of the quotes speak to a twist or twists and that can't help but stay in mind as we read, because the question we continually ask is, 'Why?'
Sure, Magary has a neat habit of plucking Ben out of one surreal scenario, only to hurl him into the next, which will be consistently surreal but utterly different. However, the 'what' really isn't important; we see it and enjoy it, but it quickly turns into a 'why'. We might ponder a while on the 'how' but not for long, as we rapidly give that up as a bad job. We hardly ever think about 'who' because we really only spend time with Ben, the few other characters who are dotted around this landscape quite obviously being props as much as the path and everything it leads to; the only 'who' question worthy of being asked is about who is pulling the strings that are jerking puppet Ben around. Everything else is about 'why' and so we spend most of our time thinking about that twist to come.
Is Ben dead? Or is he dying? Is he in Hell? Or stuck in Purgatory? Has he gone mad? Was he mad all along? Was there a trauma triggered by the bloody remains of deer on the very first page? Who knows? We have little to go on, because of the paucity of pages pre-path. Ben's married with three rowdy kids and he's in business; that's about it. Well, what I'm willing to state here is that the twist isn't that sort of twist. It's a really good twist and I appreciated it immensely, but it's not a twist to answer that big question of 'why', so, if you pick this book up on the basis of my review, don't read with that expectation.
And I really can't say much more, even though I want to, because it'll either be meaningless or a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Ben eventually accepts that he's on this unexplained quest for unexplained reasons at the behest of unexplained people, with the understanding that everything he encounters is there for a reason and, if he just keeps on going, all those things will be explained.
Oh, and it's quite a ride, it really is, not one that you'll soon forget. I can't say what you'll get out of it as a reader and how it might affect you as a human being, because that could well be very different to me. Let's just say that you will get something out of it and it will affect you and, for that reason alone, this is worth picking up and devouring. It won't take you long; it's less than three hundred fast-paced pages. And then I'll see you at that book club meeting to talk about it with you. ~~ Hal C F Astell