By Miles Klee
OR Books, 2012
262 pages, $14.38
Reviewed by Noah Bogdonoff
Ivyland, New Jersey is not a fun place to live. The city is controlled—badly—by a pharmaceutical megacorporation called Endless Nutraceuticals. Most of its inhabitants are either addicted to Endless’s products or irreparably harmed by them. Religious nuts are invading people’s houses, bridges are collapsing, and bus drivers don’t give a damn about traffic laws. Also, caterpillars have infested every nook and, apparently, refuse to metamorphose.
As if New Jersey didn’t already have a bad rap.
Miles Klee’s Ivyland dips us into the minds of eight different citizens of the fictional Ivyland, New Jersey and their interlocking webs of love, deceit, regret, and desire. All of the characters are, in some way, trying to escape the wretchedness of the world they’ve been born into, and all of them manage to both succeed and to fail in myriad ways. Some try to physically leave Ivyland, some try to build personal havens within it, and some (well, most) spend their time hopped up on the ubiquitous Hallorax gas, Belltruvin, or Adderade.
Two friendships form the core of Ivyland’s narrative. The first, and arguably more compelling, is that of Aidan and Henri, told from Aidan’s perspective. The first real touching moment in Ivyland comes at the rise of the third chapter—a flashback to Aidan’s and Henri’s first interaction—when Aidan describes the relationship: “Henri and I met as kids one summer. Nothing’s changed.” And indeed, their friendship is one of the only emotional constants throughout the book. Klee bounces us through their adolescence, from grade school to high school prom to their shared life in Henri’s run-down house. We see them fight over a girl (the disappointingly two-dimensional Phoebe), get high on Hallorax gas for the first time, and support each other at their lowest moments. Neither of them is particularly smart or successful and both of them have moments of moral decrepitude, but they are, at their core, nice people who are trying very hard not to turn into the kind of violent drug addicts they are surrounded by.
The friendship between DH and Leviticus Van Vetchen (“Lev”) is a violent foil to Aidan and Henri’s (relative) peacefulness. DH, the point-of-view character in this arc, is the vagrant child of a well-meaning but neglectful mother (the aforementioned wanton bus driver) and Lev is the son of Dr. Brutus Van Vetchen, creator of Endless’s mandatory-for-all Van Vetchen procedure. In their first chapter, DH and Lev botch an illegal cosmetic surgery, shoot an ice cream truck driver, and steal the poor guy’s car. In contrast to Aidan and Henri, who try to build a quiet life in Ivyland but are thwarted at almost every turn, these two will do anything to get out. In fact, their chapters (aside from a few that take place on a stranded spaceship orbiting Earth) are the only ones set outside of New Jersey.
Though DH’s storyline self-consciously violent to a fault, both arcs provide Klee with ample opportunity to make some surprisingly affecting commentary on family and friendship, and the ominous, violent world of Ivyland works perfectly as the backdrop to these emotionally-charged moments. The other point-of-view characters—DH’s mother Hecuba, Aidan’s brother Cal, a homeless man named Grady, and more—essentially serve as puzzle pieces to be set aside until we’re able to slot them into Aidan or DH’s lives. At moments, these elements of Ivyland coalesce into a forceful and beautiful montage of decay. At other moments, Klee spins his narrative wheels a bit too much and winds up, like Hecuba, taking us somewhere else.
Ultimately, though, Ivyland’s greatest strength becomes its downfall. The problem with setting any story in a dystopian world is that dystopian worlds are never just places—they’re commentaries, and Ivyland doesn’t do commentary very well. By asserting Ivyland as an extrapolation of our modern ills, Klee forces us to spend far too much energy placing Ivyland both temporally and politically. In one chapter, dialogue about how adults in Ivyland experienced the Space Race suggest that the novel is set in an alternate present or a very near future. At another point, however, a character masturbates by rubbing ice on the back of his neck and says, “Weird to think about masturbating the old way. Can’t believe some people still do.” “The old way” is, ostensibly, manual masturbation.
Perhaps most indicative of Ivyland’s world-building problem, though, is a moment in one chapter when a professor is fleeing the police. “[They] drop fist-sized silver irradiation (or whatever, I’m no scientist) orbs to kill the bugs,” he says as he wades through a horde of caterpillars. Klee’s character’s offhand ignorance gives the sensation that much of Ivyland exists simply because it’s narratively convenient.
The same can be said about the social dynamics of Ivyland. One chapter’s repeated use of the word “nigger” seems to have no point except to establish that racism exists in Ivyland. Other offenses such as a song containing the lyric, “I remember the gang rape well,” and a few colorful uses of the word “faggot” go similarly unexamined.
Even when Ivyland does try for commentary, it comes up short. The drugs of choice in Ivyland, Belltruvin and Adderade, are clear riffs on Wellbutrin and Adderall, but Klee doesn’t actually tap into the ongoing debates about over-diagnosis, pharmaceutical corruption, and population-level mental health. Instead, he exploits the names for their sonic familiarity and plays on popular paranoia about over-medication. It seems to be a warning, but it’s more yellow press than it is Brave New World.
Even more troubling, however, is that Ivyland seems to be warning us about the wrong thing. The Van Vetchen procedure, Endless’s “minimally invasive” solution to a water-borne blight called H12, is arguably the most sinister aspect of Ivyland. The VV procedure is required by law despite implications throughout the book that the chances of contracting H12 are slim-to-nil. It commonly results in horrible complications and sometimes doesn’t even work. In fact, much of Ivyland’s troubles can be traced to the VV procedure, because the operation’s debut introduced Hallorax gas, a highly addictive and very dangerous anesthetic.
Ivyland’s strong anti-vaccination rhetoric is unfortunate because I don’t even think this issue is within the scope of what Klee is trying to achieve with the novel. It’s too big of a question with far too much associated controversy. In situating such a slim book atop such a huge problem, Klee opens his story up to all sorts of sordid interpretations that distract from the emotional core of the novel.
It’s not all bad, though. Ivyland can be very fun to read, and can make you think. The advantage of such a disorienting novel is that readers are forced to really think about what’s going on before diving into the next chapter. Klee strikes a really interesting—and effective—balance between his sparse, eminently readable scenes and the difficult concepts and relationships that hold them together. Barreling through Ivyland as you would a normal sci-fi adventure would render it nearly incomprehensible, so the book takes a fair amount of time and brainpower to read despite its relatively small word count.
In the end, Ivyland is a compelling portrait of decay that probably requires multiple re-readings. The book is fast-paced, loud-mouthed, and messy, and everything—the people, the houses, the families, the friendships—seems to be disintegrating at such a disastrous pace that the novel’s own battle with clarity and structure comes to feel almost natural. Despite numerous hang-ups with the book, Ivyland leaves you wondering if that was the point: perhaps Klee swings us back and forth in time, place, and person simply to show us how little control we have over our bodies and fates.