Meeks, the first novel by Julia Holmes, follows Ben, a war veteran who has just returned to a nameless city to discover that his mother is dead and his house has been “reassigned” by the state. He is given a black mourning suit and told to relish his grief (“you’ll only have one opportunity in life to grieve for your own mother,” the tailor tells him merrily). Worst of all, he has been branded a “bachelor.” He needs to find a wife before Independence Day, when the remaining bachelors in the city will be forced into civil service at a sugar factory. In his cheap mourning clothes, no woman will have him. He must love, quickly, or face doom: “Lay that precious pounding heart of yours upon the table, and see it for what it is: A thing that dies in autumn,” Ms. Holmes writes. The world she creates is as stark as a Beckett play. We could be anywhere and nowhere, but everything feels vaguely familiar.
“It’s absolutely about New York,” Ms. Holmes told The Observer last week. “At the very least just the sensory experience of being in the city and being a part of all the different layers of envy and self-satisfaction that are very intense in New York.” Ms. Holmes, 39, a copy editor at Rolling Stone, is friendly and soft-spoken, careful with the words she chooses in conversation, never rambling, less out of discretion and more as a reflection of the economical style she employs on the page. Meeks is similarly self-assured.
Despite the overwhelming, palpable physical threat of being single, at heart, Ben’s problems are archetypically American: attract a mate, start a family and settle down, or else live on the periphery of society. His story is juxtaposed with that of Meeks-a mentally troubled homeless man living in the city park who thinks he’s an undercover police officer. Meeks spends the novel patrolling the park, pestering the chief of police for a gun, while being pursued by the Brothers of Mercy, the city’s shadowy law enforcers, who frighten citizens into maintaining a moral standard. Ben and Meeks are not really so different: Both are looking for fulfillment in the material-for Ben, it’s a better suit that he thinks will lead to love; for Meeks, a gun to validate his “career” as the park’s protector. Their superficial object fetishism pushes the story toward a dreary conclusion: Does a gun ever really protect? Do clothes make a man? Such notions are what make the novel feel like a nuanced allegory of New York living; stripped of all minutiae, whittled down to base obsessions and fears, Ms. Holmes gets to the crux of New York’s own fetishism.
The novel is a postmodern parable about American passion and paranoia, like The Great Gatsby as told by Don DeLillo.
“There’s a special New York version of this endless bounding towards an ideal,” Ms. Holmes said. “It doesn’t matter how much real information you get to the contrary, somehow there’s this insoluble thing that’s always on the horizon here; it makes it hard to leave, it makes it hard to actually make decisions, it makes it hard for people to pursue the thing that they came here to do. They keep us terrified of failure, as if everyone’s paying attention in a special way.”
The novel began life as Ms. Holmes’ thesis at Columbia’s M.F.A. program, under the guidance of Ben Marcus. After graduate school, she spent a year and a half without an apartment in the city, living on the couches of friends and acquaintances, revising and editing in unfamiliar environments.
Ms. Holmes’ slender, succinct style reflects a life pared down to the essentials: all extraneous words and phrases have been cut away, leaving only objective storytelling that keeps her dystopic setting from feeling overwrought. Emotions are largely parenthetical (“he loved her, he loved her”) and hyperbolic sentences like “Do anything enough-even murder-and it loses its horrible strangeness” are contrasted with cold, direct context: “Summer came.” It is an editor’s kind of writing.
Ms. Holmes was born in an American compound in Saudi Arabia. Her father worked for Aramco. She lived on a small stretch of black concrete in the desert, containing 24 row houses-two rows of 12 facing each other, not unlike the government-provided group home that Ben moves into in Ms. Holmes’ novel after being evicted from his family’s house.
“It had a real Lord of the Flies feel sometimes,” she said.
Stories about life outside the compound circulated among the neighborhood children: beheadings in the marketplace or thieves having their hands cut off in public; the religious police patrolling the streets to enforce the rules (these ideals of chastity are agents of the Islamic Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; they resemble more than a little the Brothers of Mercy, another outlandish detail of Ms. Holmes’ early life that seems straight out of her novel). The “incredibly dark things,” as she calls them, that occurred on the compound have stayed with her. She remembers a story about a neighbor at a party, drunk on homemade booze, who tumbled off a balcony and was fatally impaled on the gate below. The party’s hosts were imprisoned for serving alcohol, a contraband substance in Saudi Arabia. Ms. Holmes calls these memories “dark fairy tales,” and, dystopian fantasies aside, with its almost journalistic sense of storytelling and stark, typological narrative approach, Meeks resembles a sinister fable more than an apocalyptic adventure in the vein of 1984; the novel is a postmodern parable about American passion and paranoia, like The Great Gatsby as told by Don DeLillo.
The novel’s darkness is contrasted, however, with Ms. Holmes’ satirical flair. Ben and Meeks may be condemned to live on the outskirts of society, but that society is also a place the two want no part of. Ms. Holmes’ clearly has a sense of affection for the dreary imaginary world she has created. She sees the humor in her dystopia, in the idea that love can depend on the color of one’s suit, that happiness and freedom can be given a deadline. Perhaps this is what makes Meeks such a strangely eloquent New York novel. Why live here if not for the pleasure of a little bit of struggle?
“I love New York,” Ms. Holmes said, sincerely. “In spite of everything, Meeks is full of affection for what the world is like.”