Review: 'The Revisionaries,' By A.R. MoxonA.R. Moxon's surreal, inexplicable novel is a literary puzzle box that takes place across at least four levels of reality, in at least five typefaces — and yet, it's compulsively readable.
This book is 600 pages long. Let's get that out of the way. It is an enormous book, and reading it on a deadline for review does it a mean disservice. This is a book that sprawls into meta-fractals sentence on sentence and teaches you to feel Zeno's Paradox in your body as you bend and contort yourself into the reading of it, and is composed in such a way as to make it impossible to skim, so if I sound exhausted reviewing it, well, I am.
But more than exhausted, I'm almost irritated by how much I enjoyed it.
I had reason to expect that A. R. Moxon, previously known on Twitter as Julius Goat, would write a shorter book. His Twitter threads — the only other work of his with which I was familiar — are sharply faceted jewels of concision. He writes about contentious subjects in American politics with astonishingly compassionate poise and precision, calmly and methodically articulating thoughts so diamond-clear that I often found myself relaxing while reading them, feeling in response to them a keen relief that someone was covering this particular issue in a way that brooked no further argument.
The Revisionaries is a very different project. If Michael Chabon and Jeff VanderMeer were combatively co-creating Andrew Hussie's Homestuck with occasional eruptions of Robert Mayer's Superfolks, you'd have almost exactly this book.
The Revisionaries takes place in at least three locales across at least four levels of reality and is composed in at least five typefaces. It is, by turns and often at once, surreal, absurd, horrifying, earnest and satirical. It's written with a playful elegance belied by its first 50 pages, which give the impression of irresponsible self-indulgence — but the rest of the book balloons to absorb that beginning into itself and make it cohere with a very different aesthetic project.
I could say that it begins in a derelict place called Loony Island, with the sudden release of patients from a mental hospital, and becomes a retelling of the Biblical story of Jonah by way of a travelling circus and heaps of metafictional meditation on the difference between gods and authors, and that would be a start. It's a literary puzzle-box that also put me in mind of a tidier, more self-conscious The Filth, and if I keep making comparisons to comics it's because the book invites them, from its epigraph at the beginning quoting Scott McCloud to the transformation of a key character into a villainous caricature of Superman to the literal appearance, on page 415, of a really good cartoon.
Given all that, I'm astonished by how compulsively readable it is. The narratives — first nested, then interleaved — are sufficiently absorbing that part of what slowed the reading down was flipping back into previous points of view tangled up with different fonts to see if the thing I thought was happening was, in fact, happening — which make it feel at times like a mystery novel as much as an exercise in framing acrobatics. I came to love several characters, and Moxon dextrously manages deep dives into their personhood and motivations alongside meta-hovering outside their stories, insisting on them as flat fictions in an endlessly and badly revised book.
That said, one of the many contradictions this book sustains is my capacity for being impressed and exasperated by it in equal measure. There are three principal female characters to whose interiority we get access, and without nickel-and-diming the book's multiple iterations of narrative reality, these women have between them roughly one conversation that isn't about the book's many, many, many other men.
And yet these women carry the book's moral compass, its most justified rage, are its most beloved characters — and for all that one of them's a brilliant fighter and one of them's a trapeze artist, they're all immobilized, and that immobility is rendered as agency. In and of itself that isn't a problem — I'm on record as agitating for a separation of agency and action — but in contrast to just how much of the rest of the book is taken up with men's movements, men's pontificating, men's power, I kept probing the fact of it like a sore tooth. The book is intimately aware of misogyny, of unfairness, of cruelty, and that awareness is frequently on display — but it still feels, in the context of The Revisionaries' hugeness, like a footnote.
Having signed up to Moxon's newsletter some time ago — chiefly in anticipation of this book — I went into reading it knowing a great deal about its composition. That knowledge — that the book began as a collaboration with a friend, and went through multiple revisions and deus ex machina shenanigans before being published — enriched the reading for me significantly, and because Moxon's a genuinely wonderful storyteller, I encourage you to seek those newsletters out. They're not necessary to appreciating the book's many strengths — its elasticated prose, wonderful voices, vivid imaginary, its sheer stamina — but it does make a great (and appropriate) paratext to a vigorous, irrepressible debut.
Amal El-Mohtar is the Hugo-award winning author of The Honey Month, co-author with Max Gladstone of This Is How You Lose the Time War, and writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times Book Review.