For his final eighth grade project at Anglican, Christopher conducted an experiment. He took photographs of the backs of the hands of the boys in his class, making a list of the order in which they were taken so that later he could match the hands with their owners. He had them developed, and then a the end of the week, he had the children put their hands behind their backs, and he laid the photos out on a big wooden table at the back of the classroom. Each photograph had a number next to it, and he asked that each boy pick the photograph, by number, of his hands. Some boys had arguments because they both thought one of the pairs of hands was theirs and some hands went unclaimed. There was jostling, joking and making-fun, but not a single child asked Christopher why he was doing this experiment. In the end he tallied how many boys had chosen their own hands, and it was none.
I remember once reading someone praise Pynchon because it felt like every one of his sentences was perfectly crafted, as if each one not only took into account the sentences immediately before and after it, but the whole book it was a part of.
Twenty years in the making, that’s what the masterpiece Sea of Hooks reads like (PW put it in the top 10 books of 2013; see the list here). For 350 pages, Lindsay Hill reaches into his bag of prose tricks and brings each one out exactly when he should. Told entirely through fragments that rarely exceed the length of a paragraph, the novel constantly switches up its tone, dimension, and range to routinely keep you off balance. Hill ups his plate-spinning by hitting all corners of the reading taste palate. Some fragments are sad (really sad), some are funny, some are actually terrifying (Stephen King terrifying), many are moving. All are true.
It’s the story of Christopher Westall’s childhood and adulthood, the two periods woven together through the titled fragments that often skip ahead in time or location–the present thread finds adult Christopher in Bhutan trying to piece together his troubled childhood in San Francisco–but each subsequent fragment feels right; you’re gently guided through by the narrative’s pull and you never once feel it go off-track.
Take, for example, this burst of four fragments that happens early on in the book. What you need to know is Westy is Christopher’s dad and Evelyn is his mom.
THE QUIET KID
Christopher noticed how, in every class, there was always the kid who didn’t ever say anything. He wondered if the kid didn’t ever say anything to himself either or if he did and just kept it to himself so it all stacked up in there.
WESTY BUYS A CAR
Westy liked to put his most worn slacks and sweater on and not shave that morning and wear sneakers and go into a fancy British auto dealer and watch the salespeople ignore him as he stood by a sports car and then when someone finally wandered over tap on the hood and say “I’ll take it.” At first, Westy’s method of buying a car amused Christopher and even made him a little proud. But later Christopher realized it was like so many other things in his life, in his growing up, why couldn’t his father have taken him along and showed him how to really buy a car?
It was as if Evelyn’s finding everything to be disturbing brought Westy to the position that nothing was disturbing–a kind of barbell of panic and indifference with Christopher in the middle.
THE SECOND FIRE
The second Thorn fire burned with spectacular intensity.
In the space of one page, on a character level, you know exactly who Christopher, Westy, and Evelyn are. In order, you are treated to: a kernel of what Christopher notices; a concrete anecdote about Westy; a metaphorical description of Evelyn; and finally, an old fashioned genre-like cliffhanger that gets you asking, What’s the deal with the Thorn fire?
The big trap for novels-in-fragments is sliding into inconsequence; that too many fragments will dull and begin to blend together; that the pieces will fall away, their effect too ephemeral to linger, so that the ultimate impression at the end is shallower than that of a standard-issue prose novel.
Sea of Hooks sidesteps that trap. It has the same depth of pleasure as a regular novel (more than most, I’d argue), while also delivering more pleasure payoffs per page than a regular novel. (It’s usually a mark of a “favorite book,” at least for me, if I can pull the copy off my shelf and flip to a random page and immediately find a sentence or paragraph I love, and Sea of Hooks probably has one on every page. Our favorite writers we love for how they compose their sentences and paragraphs; Sea of Hooks reads something like a full-length highlight reel of knockout lines.) This is mainly due to the fragment structure. The nature of these fragments is that the majority require a payoff, a punchline, so that by the time you finish, you don’t think So what? and immediately file the fragment in the ever-growing FORGET pile of your brain. It’s as if Hill is challenging himself, in the span of a few sentences, to snare you, build you up, just so he can knock you out by the time you finish. That he succeeds across the board, for 350 pages, is remarkable. The act of reading feels easier and more enjoyable in Sea of Hooks.
Hill has a knack for putting things exactly how they are. The mind of the introvert is nailed in THE QUIET KID fragment. In one fragment, Evelyn is described as “like one of those thick plastic cafeteria plates with the dividers where the things in the different compartments never touched.” After talking incessantly about finally taking that trip to Japan she always wanted, Evelyn’s dream just ends: “And finally she simply couldn’t go. Days of silence–days upon days of icy empty silence.” Westy’s mother is described as “a frightful, gaunt hayride of a woman.” In Hill’s hands, characters can be distilled into a single passage, never to appear again, as is the case with Cousin Timothy, whose lone appearance ends with this line: “It was clear that Christopher was not to bring his cousin home again.”
At the book’s heart is Christopher, who struggles for the duration to get out from under what happened in his past. The mid- to late-act revelation of a character’s secret is the oldest trick in the book, but here it doesn’t feel like artifice. It happens when it should happen, as the broken pieces of Christopher’s consciousness are sifted through–like everything else in this patient, messy novel, we get to it when we’re supposed to get to it. There are running narrative strands here (the mystery of Westy, Westy’s war letters to his own father, what exactly is wrong with Evelyn, the Thorn fire), but that addictive feeling of what‘s going to happen next? gets eclipsed on page one by the precision of the writing, which is mainly dedicated to presenting, in turn, the spiritual, imaginary, and real lives of Christopher. Hill finds the corners of his characters and tells you about them, and you’re reading first and foremost to be around his characters.
By the time you finish, that’s what you take away: you have experienced a real life. You know the significance of objects to Christopher, you know him as you know your friends. You are not asking the typical questions when you read. What’s going to happen next? is replaced by a simple sense of listening, as you would listen to anyone, discursively and emotionally and honestly, telling you about his or her life. If you listen closely, by the end, you know why “Christopher understood why you have to have a separate place in yourself that holds nothing.”
The overwhelming feeling you have after all this bullseye writing is that Sea of Hooks is, above all else, true. It can make you believe that North Dakota is a made up place; it will tell you how to cheat on a spelling test; you will meet sad bartenders who work in baseball stadiums; you will find out what Socrates was doing out there in the snow. It balances terrible sadness with moments of freefalling beauty. There were days when I was reading it and I was just happy that it existed. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.
That’s it, I’m out of superlatives. Read Sea of Hooks.