Reading such a dense novel can feel like being in the backseat of a car traveling nonstop through a safari, with a reader wanting to stop and poke around a bit, maybe get a little more explanation from the tour guide.
Imagine, for a moment, the prettiest lifeguard in town has vanished without a trace, and no one has a clue what happened to her—not her parents, not the police, not the creepy married guy who ogles her from the bushes, no one. It’s the kind of incident that makes your mind wander (wonder?); while the myth-making parts of our psyches would secretly like to believe she was swallowed up by the Earth or spontaneously combusted, chances are she just had some bad luck, and was run over in the middle of the night by a truck driven by an Allstate insurance agent moonlighting as a car thief.
Even though we yearn for magic and open-ended, X-Files-like explanations, more often than not, what we find in our day-to-day lives are fractured recollections, lack of information, and magic’s less-attractive stepchild: illusion. Scott Blackwood’s debut novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, provides glimpses of the magical as it reveals the illusions and chicaneries endemic to daily life. We Agreed to Meet is an expansion of the title story from Blackwood’s collection In the Shadow of Our House, which gets divided into four sections that form the backbone of the novel. At its heart is Odie Dodd, an aging physician who witnessed the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, and years later disappears from his home. Several other characters also perform disappearing acts over the course of the story, leaving the rest of the community to make sense of the human-shaped holes they’ve left behind.
In its many lyrical moments, We Agreed to Meet surprises and amazes with offhand factoids and tidbits of grotesquery and surrealism (some of the novel’s conspicuous preoccupations: ghosts, magic, dreams and hallucinations, Greek poets, and modern day curios of the fetus-in-fetu kind). At times, the plot and characters can feel like bombers delivering payloads of intellectual miscellany, including a crude summary of Aristophanes’ creation myth from Plato’s Symposium, a spiel about the Greek poet Simonides, an explanation of what photographers refer to as “magic hour,” and various anecdotes that might have been extracted from Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Blackwood intends to cast a mystifying glow on our perception of the world, but eventually these bits start to come across as inorganic and forced.
Perhaps what we’re really encountering is misdirection. When Odie hallucinates that he’s telling Jim Jones about “Johan Hofzsinger… the greatest sleight-of-hand magician of the nineteenth century,” the novel exposes, perhaps inadvertently, its own aspirations and tactics, giving readers something shiny to look at in the form of tidbits and lyrical surrealism, distracting us from the shadowy movements going on in the background. Still, the novel’s shiniest moments leave a reader wide-eyed. In one such moment, Natalie, the nubile lifeguard, fantasizes about rescuing a deaf child from a pool and reuniting him with his classmates. The ensuing, frantic signing of the students to one another is breathtakingly poignant and, well, magical: “All around them, dozens of his school friends squat in the shadowy grass and begin to sign. Softly, softly, they rasp out words from their bodies, like insects at night.” The scene is mesmerizing, but it’s just a fantasy, an illusion conjured up in Natalie’s dying mind. In another, secondhand story, a helicopter pilot who gives tours of the Grand Canyon has a passenger jump out of the helicopter midflight. For months afterwards, the pilot is haunted by this event, until he gets a divorce and is “alone, except for the leaping man in his head.”
Fragmentary anecdotes like these provide the most jaw-dropping moments in the novel, and are so effective a reader may overlook the book’s narrative weakness. We Agreed to Meet compulsively operates in short-story mode, opting for compression, quick jabs, and mesmeric show-stoppers over continuity and scene-setting. The effect is a frantic kind of storytelling which, in the span of 164 pages, offers two narrative points of view, several time frames (we travel back 20 years to attend a kegger), about twenty characters (lascivious Indian radiologist, car-stealing insurance agent, washed-up Hollywood actor who pretends he’s Native American but is actually Mexican), and a slew of dysfunctional relationships (father-daughter incest, reunion with adult child given up for adoption, married man in love with teenaged girl, retired doctor and the ghost of Jim Jones, et. al.).
Reading such a dense novel can feel like being in the backseat of a car traveling nonstop through a safari, with a reader wanting to stop and poke around a bit, maybe get a little more explanation from the tour guide. Chapters are typically less than four pages long, the story is nonlinear, characters kind of whiz through, and most of the novel’s heavy lifting is done with chunks of summary instead of active scenes, dialogue, or description. Minor characters have a habit of dropping in to relay a magical anecdote before dematerializing back into the narrative ether, never to be heard from again. Long after you’ve closed the book, you’ll find yourself haunted by those random passages, like the leaping man from the helicopter who forever falls in the mind of the pilot. But for all the novel’s fleeting, almost ghostly quality, its crowded telling leaves a reader with ears ringing, wanting more.