“Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?” –Gertrude Stein
The long, opening sentence of Robert Hill’s first novel, the well-received When All is Said and Done (2006, Graywolf Press), runs over four pages. In an interview, Hill wittily called his debut “a declaration of independence or at least, a declaration of independent clauses.” This first effort in fiction was a liberation from the brevity required by Hill’s day job writing advertising copy; the language and form became focal points for many reviewers. The prose was called “exuberant,” “agile,” and “intoxicating.” Nimble, run-on sentences joined two stream-of-consciousness narratives that alternated between a husband and wife; however, as much as I enjoyed the reading adventure of Hill’s first novel, the story was bogged down by its style.
This is not the case with Hill’s second effort, The Remnants (March 15, 2016, Forest Avenue Press). As in his first novel, Hill demonstrates an undeniable and infectious love for language. Here, you’ll find run-on sentences but they are tamed in service of story. Hill’s prodigious use of vocabulary and the undeniable rhythms of his sentences demand attention and effort but also yield abundant rewards.
The Remnants is located in New Eden, a small town, sequestered in the woods around a lake that has shrunk in status over the years and is now called pond. Similarly, the town’s population has dwindled to three inhabitants. True Bliss is the quasi-leader of the town, an almost-centenarian, who is preparing to serve Kennesaw Belvedere his annual birthday tea. It isn’t clear during which century she has lived her life; New Eden’s exact location and timeframe are purposely vague. Kennesaw is ninety-nine, one year True’s junior, a man whose “bluer-than-blue” eyes and good looks raised the continual ire of his abusive father and attracted the life-long devotion of the town’s third remaining resident, Hunko Minton. After decades of unrequited affection, Hunko plans to put an end to the tradition of the birthday tea.
If the name of the town or the allusion to Greek mythology ring any bells, they should. The Remnants isn’t merely the story of a single town; it’s the story of our shared humanity. Hill draws on the great myths—Adam and Eve, Odysseus’s quests—and digs into prehistory to explain humanity’s innate drives. In an inspired passage, Hill gives an overview of man from cave to city:
Wandering is as much rootedness as aimlessness as ambition. Had the screech in the night not drawn dweller out of his dark cave, nor hunger, nor a tingle in his loins that pointed the way to something he couldn’t quite put his opposable thumb on, he’d have grown restless on his haunches no matter what and been out of that rock hold just because out was not in. It’s the need for a single moment to shift in shape if only slightly from now to then, here to there, this to that…that compels the every twitch, blink, sniff, step and reach.
This “tingle in (the) loins” does not get short shrift in this story; sexuality is a driving force for many characters. Grunt’s Pond was so named because the town’s males used its shores as a place to learn and practice masturbation. The vivid natural descriptions of New Eden—the mossy trees overhead and lush undergrowth—give the impression of a jungle, teeming with life and not unlike biblical descriptions of the original Eden. But in New Eden, nature is the supreme force; True Bliss uses her Bible as a doorstop. “Only nature earns her glory, and to her the only thing worthy of psalms is the sound September makes when autumn breezes the trees.”
The alternating narratives of the novel introduce an assortment of characters from the town’s history. Each has a linguistically unique name—Carnival Aspetuck and his sister Jubilee, Mawz Engersol, Frainey Swampscott, etc.—and because of years of inbreeding, the population is genetically exceptional as well. Some have extra fingers or a lack of exoskeleton; none of it is a big deal except where it concerns Kennesaw, who is normal amidst abnormalities. Although his good looks caused his mother incessant worry and pushed his father to random acts of violence against him, Kennesaw “never seemed to notice his effect on others, shrugged off any reactions as just folk being folk.” What constitutes difference, it would seem, is a matter of opinion. His mother believed “boys such as Kennesaw were as wasteful as a gold strike in a town that prized coal;” Kennesaw chooses to ignore any derisive looks aimed his way.
The history of the town includes stories of unrequited and star-crossed love, of isolation and longing, of chance destruction and unfair punishment. True’s one chance for romantic happiness was squashed by her mother, Hunko has spent his entire life pining for Kennesaw, and Carnival’s attraction for his own sister ends in tragedy.
If there’s sense to be made out of this tangled existence, Hill seems to be saying, whether we wander, dwell in shelter or range the earth in quest of something, and despite our oddities and yearnings, our natural and unnatural urges, a single, shared goal emerges, “to attach one’s lonely fate to another’s.” Wherever we travel or settle, “this is the real land bridge in life, the land bridge between birth and eternity.”
Through all of this off-kilter plot, Hill’s prose is, indeed, rollicking and exceptional and demanding of your attention. Nature is personified; the sun, moon, trees and wind all seem to have intent and feeling of their own. The overall effect is that of a thriving world—an encompassing, living entity. The menagerie of characters, however unique, feel authentic, and the novel is peppered with slightly askew homespun wisdoms and great wit. The Remnants is a multi-sensory pleasure from start to finish, quite unlike anything you’ve read before, and a novel that will have you pondering, as I do, Hill’s next move.