Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Republic of Trees" by Sam Taylor

I finally found myself ready to read this one. I don't know why I avoided it for so long--probably because I had such high expectations of it, after how much I enjoyed Taylor's The Amnesiac, and I feared disappointment.

I'm so glad to say I was not disappointed. Now, I must expand upon that statement, because there's more to it than my pleasure at avoiding disappointment. I didn't like this one as much as I liked The Amnesiac, and I would hesitate to recommend this book to just anyone. I would probably have someone try one of Taylor's other books first before I would mention this one to them. It's definitely powerful, and not for everyone. It was interesting to note the same theme of amnesia in both books, although the treatment differs between the two. In Republic, the amnesia seems like more of a literary device used because it is convenient for the plot; in Amnesiac the amnesia has more of a central purpose. I wonder what's behind Taylor's fascination with the subject?

In a nutshell, this book is about two brothers (Michael, the younger, and Louis) and a neighboring brother and sister (Alex and Isobel) who decide to throw off the bonds of civilization and create their own republic in the forest near their town. It begins in an idyllic manner, with each member of the republic spending his or her time in doing as they please, which seems to work well until the arrival of Joy (about whom I'm still wondering if she may have been a figment of Michael's imagination, or a metaphor for something I haven't quite figured out yet). Louis has always admired the works of Rousseau, namely The Social Contract; after Joy's arrival, the group of five become more serious about the politics of their republic, using Rousseau's book as their bible. The third part of the novel is pretty much just horrifying, as their republic crumbles on the weak foundation of Michael's madness and Joy's calm but steadfast goading.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to have had this idea, but I can't help but compare this book to Lord of the Flies, with their many similar elements. Of course it's been years since I've read LOTF, so I'm a little foggy on the details, but I don't recall any girls in that one, so Taylor's book introduces a new element of sexual tension.

I was left with many questions. First, I wonder what caused Michael's significant break from reality? His insanity seems to begin in earnest between parts one and two of the book, after he confesses his love to Isobel and before he awakens from his odd dreams during which Joy appears. The other members of the Republic decide MIchael must have hit his head, perhaps in a fall from a tree, which knocked him unconcsious for an indeterminate amount of time. Of course, Michael had always had an odd separation from reality, seen in his frequent and deep daydreams; but what is it that tipped him over the edge? It seems like a head injury is too shallow an explanation, but that's the only one I come up with. Later his blackouts might be attributed to alcohol, but even this seems inadequate.

Second, where had everyone in the town gone, when Isobel tried to run away and found all the houses deserted? Did they disappear when the Republic decided to believe that nothing else existed? I am trying to force this book into the idea that the children had decided to exist outside of a normal, sane reality, and that there must be a rational explanation for all of their odd circumstances even if their perception led them to believe otherwise, but the only rational explanation I can come up with (the town was evacuated for fear of the Republic's raids) seems just as unlikely as the idea that the townspeople just ceased to exist because of the Republic's unbelief.

Third, what the heck was the stinky hole under the tent all about? I can't even come up with any sort of plausible explanation for that. Sure wish I could ask the author.


Anonymous said...

It's the stinky hole under the tent that is frustrating me. I wish I knew what that was supposed to be! I thought maybe it was Michael's inner self rotting away... But that doesn't really make sense...

Kathy said...

Haha! I felt exactly the same way. But I can help you with that . . . a little bit. First, here is something I read in an interview with the author:

"The hole (and the smell that accompanies it) is like a Rorschach test: whatever you think it is says something about you. Just saying ‘I don’t know what the fuck it is’ is an invalid (or at least not very imaginative) response. I will, however, tell you how I came to write it. I’d just read Kafka’s The Trial and been very struck by the odd scene in that novel where Josef K opens a door and sees a man being whipped by another man. He then closes the door and the two men are never mentioned again. I remember reading that, laughing, and then not being able to get the image out of my head afterwards. It snagged me, and I puzzled over it for ages. But – and this is crucial – it would have ruined it for me if I had read a rational explanation of what it ‘meant’. The ambiguity, the surrealist feel of it, is precisely what I loved, and what I mimicked, in a sense, with the hole and the bad smell."

So. When I first read that, I think I was even more frustrated (as you may be), because I just wanted there to be an answer. But since then (and I love it when a book makes me think about it over such an extended period of time! That, to me, is one sign of a really good book) I have given it more thought and come up with some possibilities.

I thought it could be a combination of two things. First, a symbol of the associated character’s complete loss of hope (kind of like that sinkhole that appeared in Guatemala just a few weeks ago, only instead of sucking down a factory, this hole sucked down Hope . . . where it then rotted and stank), and second, an entrance to Hell. I link these two ideas with the phrase “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” . . .

Then I thought maybe it was symbolic of those characters' death sentences. Or maybe the holes were a physical manifestation of their fear. Whatever it may be, I tend to associate the holes more with Isobel and Louis than with Michael. But I guess since there is no right answer, this also means there is no wrong answer!

Have you read either of Taylor's other books? I highly recommend them! I've read and blogged about both of them here. Come back and tell me what you thought of those!