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Inspection
by Josh Malerman
Del Rey, $17,00, 383pp
Published: April 2019

While, I wasn't a huge fan of Josh Malerman's contribution to Christopher Golden's seasonal horror anthology, Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, one of the other books I read and reviewed this month; I did like Unbury Carol rather a lot and I realise that Josh Malerman isn't an easy author to put in a particular box. That was a weird western with horror elements, while this is... well, I'm not entirely sure what this is.

For once, I think I'm going to go along with the line I usually hate to see on book covers, namely, "A Novel", because it's certainly that, whatever else it might also be. It's speculative fiction and it's horror, but it only feels like a genre novel in the way that, say, 'Lord of the Flies' does, which isn't that much at all. It may be best categorised as general fiction, but angled to sf readers. Can I compare it to anything? Not really. Kafka maybe? Orwell?

And that's because it's a thoughtful piece. Malerman sets up a situation, a very strange situation, and gradually answers some of the questions we're almost guaranteed to throw at him. The best thing about the novel is that we start to ask those questions immediately and continually, but the worst thing about the novel is that Malerman doesn't answer all of them.

We find ourselves in a tower known as the Turret. It's secluded somewhere in the woods, because it's surrounded by a yard and then only trees. To the boys who live there, it's the entire world, the trees not just a boundary but a family, because they've been told that they were grown on Living Trees in those woods. They never leave. Why would they? Everything they know and apparently need to know is here.

We soon pick up plenty of details. They're known as the Alphabet Boys, not just because there were 26 of them, but because they're each named for a letter in the alphabet; the lead character is J and his closest friend is D. As we join them, there are only 24 left, because A and Z went to the Corner, an ultimate punishment place to which boys vanish, not for being bad but for being unclean. There's a physical and mental Inspection every day to check for that, which is as intrusive as you might imagine, hence the title.

The whole place is run by the Parenthood, but the man in charge is D.A.D., a figure of awe to the boys, who are twelve when we join them. He's really Richard, just as the only novelist the boys know, Lawrence Luxley, is really Warren Bratt, who writes his books in the Turret's basement. Crucially, all the staff are male. None of the boys have ever seen anyone who's female and they don't even know the word, because the very concept of gender is alien to them, apparently deliberately so.

This is all very carefully constructed and I mean by both Malerman and by Richard and the Parenthood. As we join, the boys are getting closer to the age when puberty will hit and so a nested set of plans trigger with the aim of persuading the boys that anything about to feel strange has an obvious explanation, initially an enforced mass move, shuffling the boys around in the building to mess with their comfort zones. Usually, whenever a lesson is needed, Bratt writes another Luxley novel to explain it, but this is a special time that needs much more.

You can imagine the questions. Who, where and why are the first ones, but many others follow. The why seems to be the key one and we soon learn at least part of the answer, but I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling frustrated at the lack of details. How is such a massive effort funded? Keeping the boys in seems to be under the Parenthood's control, but keeping the world out is something else? Never mind real parents, what about aeroplanes in the sky overhead? How do they keep the supply chain hidden from inquisitive twelve-year-old boys, very bright ones at that?

It seemed clear early on that Richard and the Parenthood were so careful and clever in building this house of cards that Malerman was surely going to pull one card away so that we could watch the whole thing fall. I focused on what that card would be. Is it something as minor as J acknowledging a lie from the previously infallible D.A.D.? The latter gives J a notebook that he can use as a diary to serve as a special communication between them. Yet it soon becomes clear that D.A.D. had already printed one of these for every Alphabet Boy. If it wasn't special for him, why tell him it was?

As it turns out, there are a few cards being pulled out by a different people and others are more crucial. I wouldn't mention this, but it's given away in the back cover blurb so I guess it's fair game: there's a second Turret, near this one, that serves as its mirror image. In the Turret for girls, it's K who's asking questions and she's willing to go further to find answers. Of course, these worlds, so carefully kept separate, are going to collide.

I have so many questions here, but I'll try to avoid spoiler territory as I ask them here. This book is so quintessential a book club choice that I'd love to sit down and dissect it with others who have read it.

For instance, in a regular novel, that collision of worlds would be the point of the novel. There's a lot of psychology here, not just of the boys who are clearly an experiment of some sort but of the people behind it who have to continually adjust what they do, given how those boys develop. But it feels like that isn't the case here. The real story to me is what happens after this book ends, making Inspection an origin story. But whose? And, whoever it's building to, are they are a good guy or a bad guy? It ends as it needs to when it needs to, but it leaves so much possibility open that I'm writing a sequel in my head and you probably will too.

Malerman's big novel, of course, is Bird Box, which I haven't read or seen, in the Netflix original adaptation that became something of a viral hit. It really ought to join my queue. Since that book, published in 2014, he's put out another seven, plus some novellas and a bunch of short stories. Given that I've only read the two novels published by Del Rey, I should probably follow up with the third, which is Malorie, published this year, but the rest are becoming a lot more urgent too. He's an unusual writer, someone who writes novels that don't fit in boxes and make us think. I like that. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Josh Malerman click here

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