By Michael Konik
Barrelhouse Books, November 2017
255 pages, $14
Reviewed by M.K. Rainey
“Safety Position!” a National Hero screams, and citizens drop machine-like into human balls, assume egg-shaped positions with their eyes to the ground. It’s hard to imagine, however, what protection the fetal position offers in the event of an actual emergency. In fact, it’s reminiscent of Cold War-era drills in which students practiced dropping under their desks in the event of a nuclear strike, the absurdity of which was only tantamount to such an event’s plausibility. While the ‘duck and cover’ of then may be equally as useless, the safety position of Michael Konik’s debut novel Year 14 feels more insidious than its real-life counterpart; it does more to keep citizens ignorant of their government’s wrongdoings than safeguard from any physical harm.
Konik calls the reader to pay attention to blind spots in a fictional, all-seeing society through subversive characters and eerie gaps in the narrative, as well as through his ability to draw parallels between the book and the real time nonfictional society we live in. His is a warning against complacency, which allows an elite class to rule unilaterally.
What’s different about Year 14 from other dystopian novels is that we aren’t thrown in mid-revolution against a militant, all-seeing government. We see what happens when a dissonant society gives way to an oligarchy, but also how we can survive and best a ruling elite. The reader experiences the seeds of dissent and how that grows into a movement, how the power of our humanity can overcome even the most oppressive forces – only if we choose to recognize it. Not from a safety position, but with our eyes forward, facing the truth head-on.
From the first line, Konik makes us complicit in the action.
“I understand that writing this down on paper without first obtaining the proper license is not permitted. I will be dealt with appropriately. You could say this report will be my suicide note.”
We are spoken to as if we are also citizens in this world.
“As I write these words by candlelight, in a location I cannot mention, I do not fear for my future. I understand that I have no future. My only fear is that what happened here will one day be forgotten.”
Whatever this emergency is it is against regulations to be documented without a license – it is meant to be kept tacit. By reading the novel, we too are committing a crime against regulations, the Caring Leaders, and the Great Nation Year 14 is set in.
We come to know our unnamed narrator as a prominent figurehead in the fourteenth year of this new society, whose ideologies are cemented with that of the regime’s. He’s a senior editor at the only “reliable” paper in the nation – Perriodocko – whose puppet mouthpieces are the sole source of information for the civilians they serve. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to what is happening now: fake news, an insidious oligarchy hidden at the base of our so-called democracy, the blind devotion (or willful ignorance) of so many citizens.
A new team member joins Perriodocko’s staff – a man by the name of Tup-Tup whose nature does not allow him to remain blind to what he sees. Through Tup-Tup, the narrator – and reader – are forced to face reality for what it is; we are made to look dead on at what could become if we keep turning a blind eye on those who seek to dominate us.
What makes the novel so engaging is how Konik leaves gaps in the narrative for the reader to fill in. He trusts us with the story, and we become just as important as Tup-Tup or the narrator. Though our narrator is kept perpetually at arm’s reach through his own blind loyalty, Konik uses Tup-Tup to pull back the curtain, revealing the artifice for the reader to see while keeping our narrator in the dark. This allows us to engage, feel a part of it, then step back and view our own role in how a civilization could unfold into this. For instance, when our narrator begins to engage in not-entirely-authorized-reporting, he’s picked up by Uncle – Tup-Tup’s caretaker – and taken to an undisclosed location. Once there, he’s made to identify another man who is clearly a rebel against the regime and watches as the heads of government take part in forbidden activities and pleasures, yet he does not make the connections that the reader does. He reads Tup-Tup’s response and actions to the novel’s events as one thing, while we – the reader – intuit his true motivations underneath it all.
The narrator may not see the artificial construct of the government he’s pledged to, but we do. We’re forced to reflect on the hypocrisy of our own country and the part we play in its propagation – just as the citizens of Year 14 listened solely to Perridocko, we are at the mercy of our mass media for truth and reason. Konik skillfully balances the push and pull of giving and withholding information and withholding so as to let us, invest in the story ourselves.