A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.
Elysium is almost the perfect Aqueduct Press book; science fictional, but complicatedly so; queer, unapologetically so; feminist, openly so; and experimenting with all sorts of interesting approaches to narrative in a number of different ways.
Elysium moves through time across its two hundred pages from before the Apocalypse to after it, and the end of the human race, following a series of permutations of relationships between Adrian/ne and Anthony/Antoinette, with Helen/Hector and Thomas as background characters. It’s an interesting concept that is reinforced by Brissett’s use of repetition, whole passages recurring verbatim from earlier points in the novel to drive home the cyclic nature of the novel and the conceit that is hinted at throughout the novel and revealed at the close. This gives a sense of deja vu to those passages that Brissett uses well in Elysium, which to some extent is in fact about deja vu; form and function are matched incredibly well.
The characters are less impressive. The cast of Elysium feels like it consistently falls short of actually being archetypes; that is, each cast member is nearly, but not quite, an archetypical figure but Brissett falls short, in part by making them too individual across different periods and in part by not distinguishing different characters from each other. Insofar as the idea of memorialisation of the human race goes, one might hope that individuality might receive a little more than the short shrift it is given here; characters don’t really come to life or burst off the page in the way one might hope, leaving the story rather flat.
The worst is the brief appearance of Hector, who claims to be transsexual (not transvestite, he makes clear) but despite responding to the name Helen from another character is consistently referred to as Hector by the narrative itself and, apart from some aspects of stereotypical femininity, shows no evidence of being trans – apart, of course, from being locked in a mental institution because of it; this hopefully-unintentional transphobia in Elysium, whose cast are largely people of colour, with a good balance across the gender and an amazing array of queer sexualities, is very frustrating.
That isn’t to say Elysium is devoid of moments when it connects, emotionally, to the reader; indeed, each chapter is a backdrop to and telling of such an emotional moment. Some are more successful than others; the attempt to keep feeling at its maximum height flags and fails at times, in part because some sections of the book just don’t quite keep that emotion there, with relationships feeling deeply untrue. It’s an unevenness that is in part rooted in characters we can’t care about because they don’t exist, and in part in occasional attempts to be too heavy-handed in guiding our emotional reactions; those heavy-handed moments, as perhaps might be expected, tend to fail, but the times when Brissett creates an emotional sense in a lighter manner are much more likely to feel true, and those hit home really effectively.
Elysium, as an experiment in form and style, is a really wonderful novel; the problem is it takes an approach to character that seems equally experimental and fails as often as it succeeds, with Brissett falling into some terrible transphobia.
DoI: Review based on an ARC received unsolicited from the publisher, Aqueduct Press. Elysium is available now.