Reviews In The Machine : The Children At The Bottom Of The Gardden by Jonathan Butcher
I was a big fan of Jonathon Butcher’s novella from last year, What Good Girls Do. So much so that in the wake of that release I found myself pondering something that doesn’t often come to mind with an author.
The question was, what now?
What does Miles Davis do after releasing Bitches Brew? What does Scorcese do after Goodfellas?
So when I saw that a new book was on the horizon I was excited. I was also very nervous. It’s about as difficult as it gets for an artist to reach down in oneself and come up with something that can stand on its own greatness in the shadow of what came before it. To put something out and constantly hear muttered refrains like, “Sure, it was okay. But it was nothing like…”
Is that a fair standard? To demand equal levels of greatness from each successive release, if not more? Perhaps not. Many an artist has unfairly ended up fading away into the background of our culture because they were too caught up in trying to chase the vestiges of former greatness.
Still, this was the mindset I was dueling with as I came to The Children At The Bottom Of The Gardden.
What can I say? Sometimes fears are totally unwarranted and clearly this kid has some game.
Let’s start with this brilliant cover art. Right away it had me thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights which made me believe that I was in for a great ride.
What I get from Bosch is a feeling of voueurism, of observing this panorama of society, having been left to its own excess and perhaps some overindulgence of sexual liberty.
Pack that notion away in your mind for a minute. We’ll come back to it.
The standard book formula tells us that we have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. The character who sits at the center of the story and makes most of the decisions and actions that drives the narrative as well as the character that provides opposition and roadblocks to that progress.
With Gardden, we don’t really have a protagonist or an antagonist, not in the strict definitions of the words, anyway. We have an ensemble cast of characters who (depending on the context) can have aspects of being both protagonist and antagonist at the same time. I think it can be a cop-out at times for books to present characters as if anyone can truly be either entirely good or entirely bad when the reality is that on the inside, each of us is fully capable of both.
This is a book that, in all fairness shouldn’t work. This is the kind of narrative structure that I think causes hair-rending and unsolicited lecturing in workshops and writers groups. It’s the kind of thing many readers might turn away from because of the sheer size of this journey.
Thankfully, this was not the case with me.
What makes this story succeed is the strength and depth of the characters. They’re so engaging that, looking at the first half of the book, I think that if you were to unravel the separate narratives and lay them out flat, any one would have the potential to stand on its own as a great novella. And yet somehow they also all manage to create a necessary support structure for each other.
I like the density of this story. As I have gotten older I have become less of a fan of longer books and on face, this would be one that would stretch my limit a bit. But the way a longer work gets to me in the same fashion as a novella is by keeping me invested in the story that is unfolding. This book easily hits this mark. Butcher breathes life into these people, for as much as I kind of hate that expression. This is a book that is going to demand your attentiveness and I would not suggest putting it down for very long. This is the kind of book you need to be picking up every day, even if just to read a chapter or two. But trust me, the level of familiarity you get from this complex tale makes all the time worthwhile.
Like the inherent craziness of that Bosch painting, what I see in this story is a conglomerate of different parts that are completely separate and yet destined to be brought crashing together. Is the point the specifics of the lives these people lead, thinking of themselves as completely independent? Or is it the fact that ultimately their fates have already been decided, merely for having been brought into existence on the same landscape? I love the sense of impending doom around all of them, that despite how independent they are from one another, they all share the common factor of hurtling down this common highway, leading towards the brutal end that maybe they all deserve.
And not unlike Good Girls, there are definitely parts of this book that will disturb, as well as some aspects of most of the characters. But again like Good Girls, it’s impossible to look away, sitting above this Bosch-ian landscape, secure in the knowledge that whatever is lying at the end of the road for these characters, it’s going to be nothing good.