(Custom House, 2021)
Sometimes it is a struggle to find the right words to start a review. You want to be engaging and focus on the work itself, but there’s also the desire to provide context for a book not just in terms of literature but as it relates to humanity and even reality as a whole. All that aside, there’s the need to put things just so; the writer’s desire to make it—whatever it is, whatever you’re trying to say—sing. Sometimes, on the other hand, reviews more or less write themselves. You finish a book and know exactly where and how to begin. This is the case for me with Matt Bell’s latest novel Appleseed. The phrase that comes to mind, after finishing Bell’s stylish, genre-bending opus of mythmaking, political intrigue, and philosophical heft is, more or less, “You bastard.”
Being a novelist, too, and seeing what Bell has done is humbling and delightful, galling and admirable in equal turns. Though he hasn’t written a perfect book—really, though, who could write such a thing—Appleseed is shockingly good. Yes, even great. Not that I’m completely surprised by Appleseed’s success. I reviewed Bell’s short story omnibus, A Tree or a Person or a Wall, quite favorably at Electric Literature several years ago. But his prior novels In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper, though beautifully written sentence to sentence, didn’t completely capture my imagination, a statement I couldn’t possibly make about Appleseed. And perhaps it’s in thinking back on Bell’s compelling short work, particularly his epic cli-fi novella Cataclysm Baby that I find the kernel (seed, even?) of what I enjoyed so much about his current offering.
You can tell when a writer is passionate about his work. Though Bell takes on many topics in this nearly 500-page tome of his—everything from consumer culture to the foundations of myth and religion to Manifest Destiny—his focus falls most consistently and powerfully on the world’s near-future and our looming climate crisis. Yes, this is climate fiction at its core—a sci-fi sub-genre that seems to be everywhere at this moment—but there’s an unabashed earnestness to Appleseed, a love even, for the natural world, that combines with Bell’s lush prose to make this book much more than simple cli-fi, to turn it into a sort of love song for our dying world. Like any good love song, Appleseed is part, or perhaps even mostly, tragedy.
From the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus to the Garden of Eden and several different iterations of the tragic tale of Johnny Appleseed, Bell’s talent for weaving together established myths, modifying them and/or completely retooling them is at the core of this book. In total, Bell’s competing myths amount to a statement about humanity’s competing impulses—the need for sustenance, for life itself, versus the greed for more, a greed it’s clear Bell sees as responsible for the damage we’ve done to the planet.
If I had to talk about Appleseed’s flaws, I’d point to the fact that its opening is a bit slow—perhaps owing to just how many balls Bell has to get up in the air (three different narrative arcs set centuries apart), perhaps to the languor of his prose—slow enough that early on I questioned where the book was heading. For readers who have the same trouble, I’d say, stick with it, because by the end of Part I, I was sure I was reading something special—a book arresting in its drama and heartbreaking in its pathos, one that presents scenarios within scenarios, conjures a bevy of permutations, some possible, some not so, all culminating in a terrifying though ultimately hopeful (maybe?) end. There’s also a bit of a penchant for lists in these pages—long lists—but I put that down to the earnestness I talked about. Bell has absolutely done his research and obviously feels very deeply about our planet’s climate crisis.
It’s tough to dwell on Appleseed’s flaws, though. There’s so much success here: from finely drawn characters to a voice at once epic and intensely humane. Honestly, I’d call this book a career achievement for a lot of writers, but Bell’s still young enough that he may surpass it. Even if he doesn’t, Appleseed is a worthy enough high point for most writers, a major work that conjures thoughts of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Mark Doten’s recent Trump Sky Alpha.