An off-the-cuff review of Terrence Holt’s fascinating, erudite, cerebral, ambitious, well-reviewed (but spottily-copy-edited!) collection, In the Valley of the Kings.
Warning: Plot spoilers!
Terrence Holt writes some glum stuff.
Holt isn’t interested in the surfaces of things. He’s not interested in dialogue, or character interactions, or domestic realism. Don’t read his stories if you want to read about young men coming of age at college, or men and their dogs, or girls sharing life-affirming pairs of jeans, or women cooking lots of different dishes within a constrained timeframe. Actually, don’t read his stories if you want to read much about women at all.
Of the eight pieces in Holt’s collection, all but one is told in the first person by a male (or, in one case, formerly male, now neuter) narrator. And almost every single narrator is doomed. Not just doomed in the way that many narrators are doomed in modern short stories: doomed, say, to live out a loveless, bickering marriage with a callous spouse, or doomed to drive a desk to retirement. Holt’s narrators are doomed to die. They tell their stories in the full knowledge that they’re going to perish, in most cases terribly. Sealed inside Egyptian tombs, hurtling solo toward Jupiter in crippled spaceships, blotted out along with the rest of the planet by a wayward comet…these are not happy men. Over and over, Holt drives his characters along a narrow, faltering brink between life and death. And then he lets them fall.
This makes for both fascinating and depressing reading. What saves Holt’s stories from feeling like intellectual snuff porn is his total command of language, his profound interest in the extremes of human experience, and his superb handling of narrative. Over and over we struggle to figure out what, exactly, is going on. Our narrators come to us blind and numb, speechless and confused. We see only what they can see, and we struggle to construct a sensible world alongside them. Only slowly do we bank enough clues to understand that we’re seeing an astronaut in a doomed spaceship, whose colleagues have jettisoned themselves in despair — or a man whose consciousness has been transplanted into a drone robot mining the ice rings of Saturn — or the survivor of an experiment gone terribly wrong, slowly freezing to death in a remote space station.
Holt is interested in the eschatological and the essential. He’s interested in what gives words their meaning, and in the gaps inherent in our language, the things for which we have no words, the experiences we can’t name. (The book is peppered with Greek and hieroglyphics, as well as epigraphs from Dante and Virgil.) He explores these ideas through ripping good yarns, Gothic mysteries and classic-feeling science fiction tales that are redolent of Poe and (Mary) Shelley, Haggard and Doyle, Asimov and LeGuin. There are a few moments when the pacing sags or the tone slips (I’m not sure even stories set on Jupiter should use the word ’empyrean’) but on the whole the collection has earned its blurbs. And when you consider that Junot Diaz, Gerald Stern, and Peter Matthiesen are all on the back cover, that’s high praise.
A final P.S. to Norton, the publisher: Thank you, W.W. Norton & Company, for taking a chance on a difficult book that is no doubt tricky to categorize in the marketplace. Well done there. But I noticed at least half a dozen typos in my reading (including, bizarrely, two instances of upper-case “I”s in place of lower-case “l”s.) This must be incredibly frustrating to all who worked hard to put the book together, Holt not least. Consider this a plea for continuing to invest in the very worthwhile efforts of copyeditors, a vanishing breed.