The Nightmare Feast:
Another Kingdom, Book Two
by andrew klavan
turner, 299 pages, $29.99
Sometime in the 1960s (yes, I really was alive back then), I began to notice references to “experimental writing.” That struck me as interesting, and I read some of the stuff, mostly fiction. Some of it was interesting, but most wasn’t—not to me, at any rate. Oddly, the “experiments” in question tended to be quite similar. They covered a very narrow range, as if all the writers were working in the same lab, presided over by a crazy scientist. (Dispense with “plot,” for instance, but not with sex, though the sex veered sharply toward the creepy.) I wondered idly, back then, what a more capacious conception of “experimental fiction” might lead to.
One answer is Andrew Klavan, who has written fiction of many different kinds (including screenplays) and in many different styles, from the richly allusive prose of The Uncanny to the stripped-down, easy-reading Young Adult novels he produced some years ago: very good examples of the genre, though not widely recognized as such; they didn’t promote the values of our YA commissars. Klavan, you see, combines a restless desire to try something new with a moralist’s passion and the instincts of a born satirist, not to mention the desire to make a buck or two. He’s writing at a time when didacticism in fiction is all the rage—but he’s working with the wrong playbook.
Several years ago, Klavan embarked on another experiment: a novel in the form of a podcast. Then someone suggested that the podcast could be turned into a book—or, as it played out, a trilogy. The first volume, Another Kingdom (the title of which is also the name of the trilogy as a whole), was published a year ago, and I wrote about it here. The second volume, The Nightmare Feast, is just out.
You recall those YA novels by Klavan I mentioned? They were quite obviously—brazenly, even—written primarily for boys. Now imagine those boys some years later, about the age of Austin Lively, the thirty-year-old would-be screenwriter who is the protagonist of Klavan’s trilogy. Such readers, I speculated when Another Kingdom was published, are the ones Klavan has most immediately in mind for this project: not all young men, of course, but the many who seem to be drifting, seem to have lost their way. And this in no way implies that other readers (seventy-plus old men like me, for instance, not to mention women of all ages) will find nothing of interest here. In fact, the “lostness” of many young men these days, much analyzed in various sharply differing contexts, is a particular case of the lostness, the fallenness, that all humans share.
If you’ve read Philip K. Dick, you’ll recall his fondness for shuttling his protagonists back and forth between different realities (sometimes accomplished by positing parallel “time-streams”). This is at once powerfully disorienting (evoking the uncertainty about bedrock reality that most of us experience from time to time) and—for the reader, as opposed to the character who is being jerked around—very entertaining, sometimes comical. Near the start of the first book in the trilogy, as I explained last year, Austin Lively passes through a doorway in Hollywood “and suddenly finds himself in a vaguely medieval setting (‘Galiana’) and in immediate peril. Before long (via another doorway), he finds himself back in Hollywood. And so it goes through the course of the book, back and forth.” That pattern persists in Book Two, The Nightmare Feast. And the trick never goes stale: Disorientation and comedy are perfectly balanced. There’s even a (calculated) repetition of my favorite joke from the first book:
“Protect the king!”
I lifted my hands up in surrender. “Hold on!” I shouted. “I’m not an assassin. I’m a story analyst.”
But what’s it all about? What evil is at the root of the horrors Austin witnesses? What is the status of the seeming reality he experiences in Galiana, when he is there, in relation to the reality of our familiar world? And what does all that have to do with the epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets at the start of the book? You’ll find some hints if you read the first two books, but for the full revelation we’ll have to wait for the concluding volume of the trilogy, due a year from now.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.