“Hear the Chorus Underfoot”: Jesi Buell Reviews Alice Hatcher’s Novel The Wonder That Was Ours

 “How hard a thing is life to the lowly,
and yet how human and real!”
—W. E. B. Du Bois

The Wonder That Was Ours begins innocently as a Caribbean cabbie picks up new passengers but quickly maneuvers past increasing racial, psychological, and ideological tensions until it crescendos at an apocalyptic fever pitch. The narrative and topical whirlwind create an anxiety pervasive throughout the text and one that culminates in the realization that the true pestilence is humanity—how humans have a singular ability to create unhappiness in every situation and wherever they go, even in a paradise.

The greatest wonder in this novel is undoubtedly its infestation of vermin. It might seem odd to say that about a novel filled with racial tensions, wrongful imprisonment, outbreak and hysteria, shades of the apocalypse, complete collapse. But it’s true. The relationship between the protagonist, taxi driver Professor Cleave, and his ‘pupils’, the cockroaches that live in his cab, are by far the most interesting and complex aspect of this story:

Then she’d smile, and we’d sense the first vibrations, the low hum that filled our minds with madness. She’d let strange syllables spill forth, and then without warning, hold back and draw us, straining, to the very edge of her shelves and our sanity, our antennae tingling and aching in intolerable anticipation. Finally, mercifully, he’d take us in her hands and bear us outside, hold us up to the moon and then close to her face. She’d stroke our quivering wings with her rough fingers and blow on the tips of our antennae until we lay exhausted, spent in the palms of her hands, in a state of unrivaled bliss.

It is also funny to read in past interviews that agents passed on this novel because it was ‘too experimental’; to me, it has a very traditional form and trajectory. This novel, despite perhaps an untraditional narrator(s), will appeal to a broad audience, both popular and scholarly. The author’s voice in dialogue is very relatable, tangible for a general audience, but the narrative, in the tongue of the omniscient swell of roaches, is nuanced and erudite without reaching the pitch of esoterism. The topics, all intertwined, inextricable from each other, range from colonialism to madness to dystopian futures—popular topics for writers and academics alike. So, I don’t want to say that that agent was wrong, but …

Throughout this novel, besides memories of living in the Lower East Side and stumbling across bugs in the cupboards, two thoughts kept repeating in my mind: an amorphous image of a dark G-d and Kierkegaard’s famous “the crowd is untruth.” Choosing cockroaches as a ‘chorus’ or the narrators, at once apart and a part of the action, is brilliant. When you think of the antithesis of a human, but still want something imbued with life, a cockroach is probably as close to perfect as anything else. Hatcher plays with the notion of a mindless insect by instilling an omniscience and intelligence that subverts the idea of human superiority. They exist as the enigmatic image of an innumerable mass speaking in one voice. Unseen but ever-present. Like a g-d.

Despite their intellectual superiority, the main character spends the bulk of the novel lecturing them, extolling upon topics as diverse as anthropology, literature, history, and biology. Their listening, their observing, plays a crucial role in rooting the desperate atmosphere off which the rest of the novel builds. There is an impotence in their intellect, much like Professor Cleave, because no one can hear their wisdom. Hatcher uses the roaches’ ability to survive to explore both history, as evidenced by familiarity with Marx and Darwin, as well as the future ramifications of the Anthropocene. The fact that the cockroaches can see both the past and possible ramifications of present actions on the future only adds to the frustration the reader feels at the human character’s actions. As Hatcher laces the roaches throughout time, they also begin to form an excellent comparison to racism as we watch them watching colonial oppression at the same time that they are faced with a blind hatred and ignorance, subject to countless attacks with newspapers and bug spray within the sardonically named Ambassador Hotel.

Hatcher’s cockroaches are the perfect and perfectly ironic vehicle to explore the main concepts of this novel: history, colonialism, the power of knowledge, and limits of human capacity. When I kept hearing Kierkegaard’s words repeated throughout this novel, I was, at first, skeptical of the singular voice that rose from the swarm.  However, by the end, I understood that that many-bodied voice, framed as the complete Other, acted more as an atemporal echo chamber, repeating truths back to an audience, a hateful and heedless horde ((untruth)):

With the ground still warm and the sky clouded over in the most infernal way, we were incapable of consoling him, or of comforting each other. Each of us existed, at that moment, in near isolation. We almost felt human.

The Wonder That Was Ours, by Alice Hatcher. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, September 2018. 304 pages. $26.95, hardcover.

Jesi Buell is Editor-in-Chief of KERNPUNKT Press.

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