Putting aside the question of nature versus nurture and focusing on the (semi-)recent ruling in New York regarding gay marriage, it is possible to imagine proud parents George Saunders and Philip K. Dick (using Margaret Atwood as a surrogate mother) raising Miles Klee’s Ivyland (OR, 250 pages, $16.00) as their own lovechild. The features of all three great authors (and doting parents) can be found in this first novel: a somewhat dystopic present/future; mandatory and recreational drug abuse; nature gone wild; protagonists prone to accidental violence; shadowy government and corporate agencies; miracles; terrorism; New Jersey.
Mr. Klee, 26, whose prose has appeared on The Awl and in McSweeney’s, Vanity Fair and various other very hip publications (including this one), has tackled—successfully—an oversaturated subject: his generation’s obsession-with-slash-suspicion-of the pharmaceutical industry. (Full disclosure: The writer of this review is familiar with Mr. Klee through New York publishing circles, and once punched him at the Brooklyn bar Last Exit.) The book is set in Ivyland, N.J. (no relation to the real borough of Ivyland, Pa.). Some of this plays out in the grand tradition of science fiction satire: children are required (or advised) by the government (or a pharmaceutical company called Endless) to get a quick, painless procedure—the Van Vetchen operation—which uses a patented brand of anesthetic gas called Hallorex, produced by Endless.
The VV surgery protects against a (supposedly) dangerous chemical contaminant in the water supply, but this is one of those cases where the cure can be worse than the disease: while nobody knows whether or not people have actually gotten sick from bad water, Hallorex has the tendency to turn a percentage of first-time users into drooling mental patients. Those who aren’t allergic to the gas are addicted to it, getting back-alley surgery just to get a Hallorex fix. “There’s no weekend warriors on the D,” said a character in Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly. “You’re either on it … or you haven’t tried it.” The drug D in Darkly had the same unfortunate cognitive side effects of Ivyland’s Hallorex.
But besides huffing gas, the New Jersey natives have other substances to take the edge off their menial jobs. There’s Adderadde, an unsubtle soft drink allusion to America’s favorite Schedule II amphetamine, and Belltruvin, described obliquely as an addictive antidepressant/antianxiety medication. Alcohol, however, is impossible to get hold of, which isn’t so different from the irony confronting today’s teenagers, for whom scoring weed or Ecstasy is easier than attaining the fake ID they need to buy beer.
Ivyland’s story is told through the eyes of its citizens. The community has fallen into a state of disrepair and abandonment that is noticeable even to the youth who have grown up in the declining dump. Endless has bought everything in town (including the street names), and the cops have become as anarchistic and mean-spirited as the roving bands of teenagers (who look menacing after impromptu cheekbone implant surgery involving beer coaster implants). Things have taken a Turn for the Worse, though we’re never exactly told why or when; the novel jumps around in time with every chapter, so it’s not evident whether outside influences are to blame for turning Ivyland into a ghost town, or if it was headed that way all along.
To say Ivyland is dystopian would be inaccurate, since it’s hard to imagine what an ideal version of future New Jersey would look like. And it’s unclear if Ivyland is even meant to be set in the future; this could just be a parallel version of the present. No one drives around in a hover-car, or refers fondly to “the good ol’ days” of Barack Obama’s administration.
There’s also a dose of the natural fatalism of ecotopian fantasy in Ivyland—lightning strikes the same spot twice, while hoards of writhing caterpillars overrun the town—but Mr. Klee isn’t content with merely presenting an alternate reality. The bulk of his writing is inadvertently a study in chaos theory. What happens when two best friends from Ivyland decide to skip town after hijacking a police-appropriated ice-cream truck, and tour the country on a Hunter S. Thompson (via Pynchon)-esque never-ending road trip? What if two young men stayed in Ivyland and experienced its slow crawl to death as it is being overridden by a plague of bugs, Big Pharma and religious zealots? What if one of these Ivyland residents was slowly dying in a spaceship headed toward the moon, rebuffing the advances of his only companion in that sterile death trap?
None of these twosomes are the same set of people, but they might as well be. Mr. Klee has spent so much time creating his weird and fantastical world that he doesn’t leave much room for character. The protagonists who escape Ivyland (DH and Lev) have the same voices and dynamic as the two who don’t (Aidan and Henry). Aidan’s older brother Cal is the one floating in space, and though at one point the novel tries to differentiate the siblings’ personas by having them simultaneously recount a childhood trauma, it accomplishes the opposite. Neither Cal nor Aidan can muster anything like human emotions, and apart from Henry, the main characters in Ivyland are almost pathologically unlikable; their motives unknowable; their boredom and cynicism as endless as Endless.
Which very well may be the point Mr. Klee is trying to make. The flattening of affect and dulling of emotions due to overmedication could be one long, heavy-handed allusion to today’s pill-popping culture. But like any child who lives in the shadow of esteemed parents, Mr. Klee’s work can’t live up to the brilliance of its familial influences, all of whom wrote through characters we might not have liked, but could at least identify with. By the time DH, Cal and Aidan recognize a semblance of humanity in themselves, its too late for them, and too late for us to care.
Then too there’s the issue of Ivyland’s narratives. Presented from individual characters’ points of view, they never quite come together like the jigsaw pieces they presume to resemble. Several of the chapters come from the perspective of individuals entirely superfluous to the Ivyland chronicles: they stand on their own as interesting vignettes, but never fit into a larger picture. And despite the road-tripping adventures of DH and Lev (who happens to be the son of the creator of the VV procedure), the world outside the New Jersey town remains vague.
Which is not to say that Ivyland is devoid of emotion or resonance. The novel does radiate with a core layer of pain, hidden under attempts to mute it through various habits. The protagonists could be anybody’s burnt-out druggie friends, the kind who might have meant well but gave up long ago on trying to fight for any sort of understanding of the world around them and are, essentially, waiting around to die. Are their stories worth telling? Sure. But that deadened mentality is also the book’s weakness: since its characters don’t care enough about the Big Questions, they never get answered.
After hitting so hard on some key elements of drug life in Ivyland—the effects of the different medications, the slow loss of sanity, those damn caterpillars—the novel is less sure-footed in other areas that seem equally (if not more) important than the arrested development of its spaced-out characters. What is the connection between Endless Pharmaceutical and the VV surgeries, or the shadowy syndicate society behind the company that may or may not be conducting human experiments? What group is responsible for the often-referred-to-but-never-explained bridge explosions (acts of terrorism, really)? And why is one chapter inexplicably devoted to an Ivyland professor and his wife whom we never encounter again?
Mr. Klee’s first novel opens the door to a world that is fascinatingly mundane (if such a thing is possible). But unlike in the works of Mr. Dick or Mr. Saunders, here the bizarreness of the world the characters inhabit distracts from, instead of complements, the plot. Ivyland teases us with glimpses of marvelous and terrifying scenarios for life in the post-prescription age, but spends most of its time focusing on a coming-of-age story in New Jersey, and that ends up feeling wasteful and unsatisfying. Though in that respect, Mr. Klee has captured the essence of life in that state better than a Zach Braff film ever could.