The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.— William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)
Philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) was interested in the epistemological question of how we learn to turn the multifarious bits of sense-data impinging upon us into solid, comprehensible objects surrounding us. Readers might keep this Jamesian dictum in mind as an analogy when evaluating Eminent Domain. Carl Neville is a writer of significant talent whose prose is evocative, yet his new and structurally experimental novel can be seen as serving up one great blooming, buzzing confusion.
Neville throws us immediately into the mix with an extensive cast of characters, locations, and formats, and he is an adept juggler. The content can be engaging and impressionistic, yet the structure itself is cubist; he paints a deconstructed picture, a simultaneously split-angled narrative whose through-line can, like a Picasso portrait, be a challenge to stitch back into a comprehensible whole.
In Eminent Domain, we find Neville successfully attempting several difficult feats at once as to his novel’s content. He is creating a detailed alternate history set in England where, by 2018 (the present), Britain (now the People’s Republic of Britain) and the rest of Europe have been taken over by the Soviet Union, resulting in a communist sphere (the ‘Co-Sphere’) arrayed against a United States governed by leaders whose personas are a mix of grandiosity and metaphysics, with talk of colonizing other worlds and of reaching life everlasting. The Co-Sphere, separated from America by a semi-permeable electronic ‘Partition’, is a meld of complicated bureaucracy and ultra-sophisticated technology, including a skin-patch delivering a myriad of pharmaceuticals regulating, moment-by-moment, the wearer’s orientation to the world, moods, energy levels, and much more.
We find a variety of gadgets including Passocons (something like hyper-enhanced personal computers) and RODS (hand-helds which tie users into a network of government directives, graduated rights of access to information, and deep analysis of the physical/psychological states of each user, to the extent that when it comes to voting or other actions to be taken on their users’ behalf, RODS do so independently of their users without any need to consult them). We also encounter high-tech weaponry (including ‘smart bullets’ that weave their trajectories like Cruise Missiles), the ubiquitous use of recreational drugs including ‘Everlasting Yeah’, a smuggled drug manufactured by one of the American Vice President’s numerous companies, and a massive bacchanalian club complex named ‘the Enthusiasm’.
Beyond this quasi sci-fi setting, Neville creates a complex plot: the murder of a political figure involved in organizing the Olympic-style ‘Games’ about to be mounted by the Co-Sphere, a break-in, an assemblage of criminal investigators (each of whom has personal agendas both professional and romantic) drawn from a variety of bureaucratic niches — all overlain with thriller and spy-novel skeins of trans-Partition smuggling, explosive terror attacks and assassination attempts, poisonings, and other intrigues. Also in the Co-Sphere mix is a reclusive (and perhaps dead) writer who has become a cult figure.
So we have a textured, imaginative setting, a complex plot, and exposition establishing a wide array of well-formed characters. Sounds quite good — so why my allusion to the Jamesian baby? The problem here lies not in its content but in the structure of Neville’s presentation.
Neville fractures his narrative. The 454-page novel consists of sections that are usually only a page or two in length, captioned by names or dates or detailed ROD file-and-cache identifiers, meeting transcripts complete with longitude and latitude notations, governmental reports, audio files, dream read-outs and other archives (called ‘Urkives’). What’s more, the text is peppered with a plethora of acronyms, some of which are explained, some contextualized so the reader can ultimately deduce their reference, and some neither.
All of the above lend an air of authenticity to the reader’s experience and might make for an engaging narrative where the reader is left to his own devices for the moment, trying to turn some small piece of initially confusing text into something understood. In the case of Eminent Domain, however, Neville creates all of these complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.
Neville’s intention may be to present his tale in a way that puts the reader into a certain extended mental state, not of willingly suspended disbelief but of willingly suspended comprehension, by taking a good, complex story and refracting it into shards, creating an experience analogous to the way the Jamesian baby first experiences the world.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this undertaking would likely come off as more a novelty than a novel, but in the case of Eminent Domain, Neville presents a literary challenge that may be viewed by some readers as a worthwhile puzzle and by others as a frustrating experiment.