University of Hell Press
tl;dr summary: Life in New Canaan, MI is shitty, and lots of different characters tell you why.
Read this if you like: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Alan Heathcock’s Volt
I am a firm believer that genre conventions are made to be broken, whether the term’s used to refer to form or content. In terms of content, Swarm Theory falls squarely in the literary camp. It’s the form where author Christine Rice shakes things up here—and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.
The stories (chapters?) themselves are well-written. Some are better than others, as is often the case. “Known Issues” and “The Art of Survival” are masterful—in fact, the entire first act is strong. There are flashes of brilliance in the remaining three acts, too. “King of the Lakes” is tragically beautiful and “Spectacular Diversions” has a unique voice paired with an excellent pacing and flow. A couple of the stories feel a bit cliché; I could swear I’ve read “Other than Honorable Intentions” before, or at least something like it, and “Kinetic Friction” is predictable, bordering on melodramatic. Generally, though, it’s a good representation of the modern literary style: artfully-written everyday people, many of whom are good people doing not-so-good things, some of whom find either redemption or growth at the end of their journey.
Where I felt this book stumbled slightly was in its scope, which seemed to exceed the constraints of the structure. The individual narrative sections couldn’t quite decide whether they were chapters or stories—not self-contained enough to stand apart from the collective but not interconnected enough to give the book a complete narrative arc. To use the bee metaphor so prevalent in Swarm Theory, the novel as a whole felt like a hive full of worker bees with no queen. There were so many points of focus that the complexities of the plot felt confused, a bit scattered. I was missing a tangible central thread that could focus the narrative and give it direction.
I should admit I was predisposed to pay extra attention to the structure of this book when I came into it. I’ve been working on a project with a similar structure, one that you might call a “novel in stories,” that walks the line between a novel and a collection. I picked this book up intentionally to see how she approached the multiple POVs and whether or not it worked. The biggest benefit of the structure is how big it makes the world. Giving so many character their own voice lets us see all of New Canaan, even the parts one character or another would never visit.
The downside of the multiple POVs, as you might guess, is that it’s harder to follow. To fully appreciate the story I think would take me another read. The reader has to piece the bigger story together out of short, limited glimpses of the world. It jumps back and forth in time over a pretty broad stretch. The de-centralized narration makes it harder to gather on a first read which details and people will be important later on; many characters appear sporadically or go by different names in different perspectives, making them difficult to track. I ended up doing a lot of back-checking and re-reading just to get my bearings. I’m not opposed to a difficult novel on principle, but in this case I feel as though the structure made the book harder to read than it had to be, and I’m not sure it was ultimately in service to the story.
The interplay between the voices allowed for beautiful dramatic irony. The characters are as well-formed as they are diverse. I wonder if perhaps this is what I’d call a writer’s book. I found myself appreciating it from a craft perspective, admiring her use of language and coming at it from an intellectual more than an emotional angle. There’s a lot of good here if you’re willing to work for it.