Brood serves up a richly imagined, hideous, surprising world.
Length: 320 pages
Author: Chase Novak
Publication date: 2014-10
Scott Spencer has always written well about appetites. His breakthrough novel, Endless Love, is about an adolescent lust that becomes unmanageable. (It earned its National Book Award nomination and recently, it spawned a widely-hated movie adaptation.) A Ship Made of Paper discusses illicit adulterous love between a white man and a black woman; it, too, deserved its nod from the National Book Award judges. Man in the Woods tells of a successful guy who simply loves his acquisitive life too much to admit to the police that he has accidentally murdered a stranger. And Spencer’s two newest novels—written with the pen name “Chase Novak”—take questions of desire and appetite to new extremes.
"Novak's" first novel was Breed, and it was a doozy. Apparently, Spencer didn't want his actual name immediately associated with this fun and rather pulpy work, so he took on the pseudonym. (Many other writers with literary street cred have done the same; e.g., Ruth Rendell John Banville, Stephen King, Carolyn Heilbrun, Ed McBain and Amy Bloom.)
Breed is about an affluent Manhattan couple who simply can’t conceive. They don’t want to adopt; they want to see themselves in their child’s eyes. So they fly to Eastern Europe and meet with a shoddy fertility specialist. He injects both of them with a fertility drug that contains extracts from various animals. Unfortunately, one of these animals is a type of fish that is known to eat its own offspring. And so the parents have children. But they also find themselves sprouting werewolf-ish hair, murdering and eating dogs, and even longing to devour the flesh of their own new twins.
Breed ends with some splashy and memorable murders and the two twins, Alice and Adam, get away from their cannibalistic parents. Brood takes up where Breed left off.
The twins’ aunt, Cynthia, is now in charge of the twins’ welfare. She moves into her dead sister’s Upper East Side townhouse; she can’t resist. Yes, the townhouse was the site of some grisly scenes. But it’s so beautiful! And worth so much money! She will raise the twins here. Of course, problems arise. A living bat becomes lodged in a toilet. Rats overtake the cellar. Intruders appear.
Meanwhile, a young man named Rodolfo is trying to start a kind of gang. Rodolfo is the child of parents who went to Eastern Europe for the dreadful fertility treatment. This means that Rodolfo has bits of animal behavior wired into his own psyche. He’s hairier than he’d like to be. He runs on all fours. He enjoys dining on squirrels. The members of his gang are all in a similar situation. They hide in Central Park so their cannibal parents can’t find them. They run wild during the night. Those who are only slightly werewolf-ish sacrifice some of their blood on the black market. (Drinking the blood makes you very horny. And so the blood is kind of like Viagra. But you can’t sell the blood of the super-super-freakish children. That blood causes problems, such as murderous tendencies. You can only sell the blood of the mildly freakish children.)
A third strand of story concerns a resentful and unsuccessful Brooklynite who works for a sketchy research company. The company wants to abduct and possibly kill the “animal/human children”, to study what benefits they may have for humankind. The Brooklynite really wants to advance in the company, and he really wants to get out of Ocean Park. These appetites might have disastrous consequences.
A fourth, and most important, strand of story concerns Alice and Adam. They are desperately trying to fight the onset of puberty, because they don’t want to become like their crazed blood-drinking parents. So they rarely eat anything. But what if it’s irresistible to turn into an animal? What if they can’t quite suppress the urge to put an end to some human lives?
One reviewer, Dennis Drabelle, smartly compared Novak’s work to the gross stories of Roald Dahl. This comparison is right on the money. In fact, right now I’m reading The BFG with some of my students, and I’m seeing Novak all over the place. As you’ll recall, the BFG speaks in a kind of adorable pidgin English. Novak adapts and changes this pidgin English for his own purposes, and he puts it into the mouths of his half-human/half-animal characters.
You’ll see bits of satire sprinkled throughout the novel. Novak is aware that we live in a time when people are rapidly losing their minds, so to speak. People will shell out astounding amounts of money for ridiculous things. Here in New York City, there’s a high-end maternity clothing store called “Bump”; many designers of couture baby clothing; private schools at which mothers will not appear unless they have been fully made-up and given expensive haircuts; and a now-defunct restaurant where wealthy folks could eat in pitch-black darkness while getting served by the blind. All of this is clearly on Novak’s mind. The world is going to hell, and Novak has fun with the awfulness.
Still, don’t spend a ton of energy looking for a coherent satirical “point” here. Brood is just entertainment. It’s a richly imagined, hideous, surprising world—put onto the page for you. Who could ask for anything more?