Like most people, I find new books by reading library blogs, or visiting askjeeves.com and typing “please show me a good book,” or perusing the shelves at my local library until I find a book with a cover that seems sufficiently gravy resistant. Occasionally though, a human will recommend a book. Such is the case with this month’s recommendation: a colleague said “Bats of the Republic” sounded like one of the weird books I like. I tipped my hat, gave my monocle a friendly shake and asked Jeeves about this weird book. (I’m compelled to note that while I do often enjoy literary oddities, in general my tastes lean to the conventional, and I have the crystal decanter collection to prove it.) Jeeves obliged and showed me a picture of the author’s tremendous mustache (or perhaps the mustache’s tremendous author?). I swooned, such was my joy at finding a novel so presumably suited to my tastes. After a quick trip to the market for a crystal decanter or two, I eagerly set to reading the words birthed by such an inspiring swatch of follicles.
“Bats of the Republic” is subtitled “an Illuminated Novel,” which, rather than meaning it is self-lit, perhaps by a series of small magic candles, means that it is fancy. This fanciness includes handwritten correspondence, maps, illustrations from a character’s burgeoning field guide and there being a book within the book (though that is not exactly accurate, but to explain it entirely, to make this sentence make some sense, would subtract from the book’s delights). “Bats of the Republic” is set in a future where most of society has crumbled, steam has replaced electricity, and the freedom to live where you want if you can afford it is replaced by a government-mandated life cycle (young, single people live in Port Land, the elderly live in Chicago, gay people live in Atlanta, couples and crazy sheriffs live in Texas, etc).
The novel opens with Zachary Thomas (the character, not the author after having shed the final third of his name) slashing a steam tube with his sabre in an effort to vent his emotions and some steam. Zachary finds a letter labeled “Do Not Open.” The letter goes missing. Someone or something is murdering people. It is illegal to possess a pencil or a document that hasn’t been carboned and entered into the vault. Laudanum is plentiful.
The book within a book is called “The Sisters Gray,” and it is the sort of 19th century novel of manners you would expect from a man with magnificently cultivated facial hair. Its pages are marked by a hole, which we eventually discover is the result of its having stopped a bullet on behalf of a character that exists within the world of “The Sisters Gray.” (Indeed, this may prove a most confounding reading experience.)
The stories within “Bats of the Republic” twist and meet in ways that may compel the reader to sit for a spell and think, their hands running idly over the nearly imperceptible imperfections in their newest decanter. A final bit of fancy: The book ends with a sealed envelope labeled “Do Not Open.” I did not abide, and neither should you. Here’s hoping the letter is always returned with the book. If you enjoy being confounded, my recommendation is to read the novel soon, before the letter is lost or ruined by gravy stains.