Every now and then, I remember to dip my toe outside the speculative fiction genre waters, for instance, into contemporary mainstream literature. Of course, it’s been said that all fiction is, to some degree, speculative. Even narratives firmly rooted in our world wonder what if; they imagine histories that never happened, populated with characters who never lived. The reverse can also be said to be true. The best speculative fiction examines our world and shows us something vital about human nature, helping us better understand our own lives. Story is how humans make sense of the world. Events occur, and we later string them into narratives in order to give them meaning, or share them with others.
Bloomland by John Englehardt highlights this essential truth – that regardless of genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, all narratives are constructed with a purpose, to convey a viewpoint, impart information, make sense of a series of seemingly unconnected events, or even to entertain. Stories are built things, as are the characters that inhabit them. Even the news media reports in the form of stories, casting those involved as characters, and Bloomland is sadly relevant to the current news cycle, as it deals with a fatal school shooting on a college campus. The story is ostensibly presented from three loosely-connected viewpoints: Eli, the shooter; Rose, a fellow student; and Eddie, a teacher at the school whose wife, Casey, is one of the shooting victims. I say “ostensibly” as the entire novel is narrated by a fourth connected perspective, Dr. Bressinger, one of Eli’s professors, and Eddie’s friend, colleague, and occasional roommate. More on him later.
This structure highlights what, to my mind, is the point of the novel, which is not to unravel the shooting or the motives behind it, but to examine the ways identities are constructed. Bloomland explores how individuals construct their public and private selves; how it is human nature to construct narratives about people around us in an attempt to understand them; how outside forces, such as religion and societal expectations, shape a person; and how – in the case of a national news story such as a shooting – the media constructs identities in the course of presenting their narrative.
“They don’t actually want to help you or know you. They just want to preserve their own ideas of compassion and meaning. They want to hold onto the vast practical joke of their lives so they don’t have to feel the pain and confusion its absence would reveal. And they don’t care if you die. They just want to believe your crime was the result of a tortured psyche. There’s nothing cruel about death–only misunderstanding, and that is exactly how they are planning to empty you.”
As a young woman, Rose was caught in a tornado that destroyed her home and her family. At college, she reinvents herself, deliberately setting out to construct a new identity. The first identity she chooses is sorority girl, someone who eats the right foods, wears the right clothes, attends the right events, and has the right friends. Over the course of the novel, that identity unravels, and she must begin again in deciding who she wants to be.
After Casey’s death, Eddie constructs a variety of identities for her. She is a fixed point in time as he returns to what their life might have been. She is idealized, a symbol of loss. She is a figment, projected into the places Eddie visits as he tries to construct for himself his process of grief. Eddie loved Casey, but his journey over the course of the novel calls into questions how well he really knew her in the end.
Eli ends up being one of the most interesting characters in the book, perhaps by virtue of being the most examined. He is not necessarily a sympathetic character, but he is not unsympathetic either. His actions are presented as monstrous, but Eli isn’t presented flatly as a villain. Instead, Englehardt presents multiple angles from which to view Eli’s character, all of which are factors in constructing his identity.
The media paints Eli as the subject of bad influences, a drug user and dealer, disconnected from reality and driven to violence by the loss of his mother in a car accident as a child. The prosecution at his trail labels him as calculating, someone from whom an act of extreme violence was only ever a question of when, not if. His defense tries to show him as vulnerable, mentally unfit to stand trial, driven by voices. Through his father’s eyes, Eli is a stranger, someone drifting further out of the picture until they become unknowable. Eli constructs multiple identities for himself as well. He is a hero, he is lost. He is numb, he is confused, he will make an impact on the world, and shake it from its complacency.
“Day one of the trial ends, and as a black light gets thrown onto your entire life, you feel like everyone has missed the point entirely. The whole idea behind the shooting was that you had never done anything wrong. You weren’t evil or psychotic. You were overlooked, disenfranchised, promised one thing and given another. The only thing that should be discussed is how strong your impulse became to release this pain back out into the world.”
Eli embodies a variety of tropes and narratives about mass killers, the same narratives too often repeated on the news. He was angry, a loner, a quiet, polite young man, but society let him down. At the end of the day, the incontrovertible fact remains that Eli is a murderer. He took lives, and no amount of justification or explanation will change that.
Ultimately, Bloomland is a series of character studies, writ large, an exploration reminding us that there is no singular correct reaction to tragedy, no one way to grieve, and no right or wrong when it comes to coping with violence on a small or large scale. Englehardt presents beautiful images and turns of phrase throughout, and even when the characters aren’t likable, they are engaging. It’s a short novel, but accomplishes a lot with a length that keeps it from feeling indulgent or bloated.
Circling back to that fourth perspective, that of Dr. Bressinger, we see once again how Bloomland itself is constructed to be a story about stories. Bressinger’s narration occurs in the second person, as though he is telling each of the characters the story of their lives. Even though he only knew Eli briefly, and Rose barely, if at all, Bressinger relates each character’s life in intimate detail, including things he could not possibly know. Thus, one must assume, his characterizations must be, if not a lie, at least an imaginary construction allowing Bressinger to make sense of the tale. Within Bloomland‘s fiction, as in life, all we can do is gather the perspectives and make them into our own story to bring ourselves a little closer to understanding the shape of the world.