Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"These Nameless Things" by Shawn Smucker

At some point while reading These Nameless Things, the new novel by Shawn Smucker, I realized I was reading three different but closely related stories.

The first story is the dystopic, almost post-apocalyptic one. A group of people live in a small village at the base of a mountain. At some point in the past they’ve come down from the mountain, but their memories of the mountain and what happened there are vague and ill-formed at best, except for the fact they were horrible. Each person knows that he or she made a deliberate choice to leave the mountain, because that’s how you have to leave. The village seems a safe place. Stretching to the east is a great plain, punctuated by trees. And one by one, people have been leaving the village for the rumored city beyond the plain. Some eight people are left.

Life in the village is safe, and yet there’s this pull to the east. Profound change comes from the outside and from two directions – a woman suddenly arrives from the mountain, and Dan, one of the remaining residents, takes her in, and then a young girl arrives from the east, saying nothing about why she’s journeyed to the village. 

The second story concerns two brothers, Dan and his twin Adam. Dan lives in the village, having survived the journey from the mountain, but he lives in the house closest to the mountain. Adam still lives on the mountain, and Dan will never leave the village until his brother comes down. Only gradually does Dan unfold the story of what happened to him and his brother, and that story involves all of the people left in the village. One senses it is not a good story.

Shawn Smucker
The third story is the underlying, framing story. It is the story of the underworld in Greek mythology, with its ferryman Charon and its separation from the living world by two rivers – Styx and Acheron. Dante wrote his epic Inferno based on this Greek myth, with himself as the narrator making the journey and the Roman poet Virgil as his guide. According to the myth, heroes like Aeneas, Heracles, Odysseus, and others make the journey and return alive. 

These Nameless Things works on all three story levels because Smucker maintains a simplicity and a sparseness to the narrative. It could have easily veered off into a jumbled chaos, but that sparseness, reminiscent of Raymond Carver, keeps the story flowing toward a conclusion of successive revelations. 

In addition to the novels The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There, Smucker has published four non-fiction works – Once We Were StrangersMy Amish RootsBuilding a Life Out of Words, and Refuse to Drown. He and his family live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Smucker tells a haunting tale in These Nameless Things, a story of guilt and regret, a story about longing, and, ultimately, a story about forgiveness.


No comments: