NEWER TESTAMENTS, a novel by Philip Brunetti, reviewed by Nora E. Webb

Beautiful, haunting, and decidedly subversive, Newer Testaments invites us to explore the metaphysical, the hypothetical, and the hallucinatory. It follows an unnamed narrator in his journey of escape—first from the Facility to which he admits himself, and then (yet also simultaneously), from the compelling need to write his continuation of “The Revelation of John.” Our narrator tells us that in 1981, Simon Baden presented a continuation and critique of the Book of Revelation for his eighth-grade book report. What the narrator struggled with then and still now in the present is whether or not Simon spoke the truth when he declared that he’d “implanted in 12 of his classmates a continuation of the book … since none of us were particularly talented writers, he’d implanted it in each of us like a time capsule.” This is a question that the narrator and we will struggle with for the duration of the text. The narrative leaves even the most careful of us questioning what is real, what is true, if what is real and true are the same, and if we can trust the narrator to be forthcoming in the recitation of his memories and dreams.

This same tactic executed with less thought and precision would be frustrating; though to Brunetti’s credit, he works with detail and time in such a way that we are hardly frustrated. Instead, we are just as invested as the narrator and just as curious as to learn the truth of thirteen-year-old Simon Baden’s influence over twelve fellow students. The story comes to us in fragmented vignettes with cryptic and shifting details and opens after a five-chapter prelude that serves as the indoctrination of the madness that is to ensue. Shifting quickly amidst the cast of characters (some real, some hallucinated, some alternate personalities of the narrator), Brunetti thrusts us into the same experience of mental confusion that the narrator struggles with during his time in the mental health facility. Those of us who prefer a straight narrative with a linear storyline will likely be put off by the opening, but those who are patient and dedicated enough gain some clarity as the narrator begins to open up about his childhood, his school, and his life since (possibly) having the extended Book of Revelation implanted in him. The details Brunetti and the narrator provide will still leave us questioning the legitimacy of the memories, but since our narrator does not know the whole truth, we do not either. Ultimately, that is an essential part of the experience that is this experimental text.

With the title Newer Testaments, we should prepare for warped, heretical, and ironic biblical imagery. There is the graphic image of the fish with one eye missing, “a slinky of bloody nerve flesh,” the promise of fishing for “half-fish and half-men,” and the perversion of Psalm 23. In Brunetti’s world, our narrator doesn’t walk through the valley of the shadow of death, rather it is a hallucinated hallway. In Brunetti’s world, our narrator must fear evil because while God is with him, he is present only as “he chased me down the hall with a bloody axe.” The literary motif of baptism and renewal of life is subverted through multiple references to suicide by drowning and various voices wishing for death. The virgin and the whore are conflated, and if Simon Baden is a Christ figure, his twelve followers are unknown, even to themselves. As the narrator recounts those lost and those gone, he reveals that “nobody knew who was in the 12 except Simon Baden.” So while the characters presented by Brunetti vary in their corporality, each is fully developed regardless of their status. This is a strength of Brunetti’s: just as the narrator finds himself questioning, so do we. There are no accidental slips or tells that give away the true nature of a character; the narrator alone holds the keys, and our narrator just may be losing his mind.

This confusion of the narrator’s mind is perfectly reflected by Brunetti’s use of the first-person narration, coupled with the meticulous descriptions, timelines of events, and memories he bestows upon his narrator. Where much is questioned along the way, little is certain. This struggle for truth while reading mimics the tone of the novel. Brunetti states in his biography that he seeks to write “off-kilter dream realism,” and that is undoubtedly what he has achieved. It must be emphasized that the lack of clarity in the plot itself is no fault of the author; it is deliberately crafted and executed beautifully. We may find ourselves floundering for truth and solid knowledge, but we merely need to remind ourselves that the text is an experience. The truth is flexible, and solid knowledge escapes us daily. Just as we who persevere through the chaos of the prelude are rewarded with slightly more stable footing later, Brunetti rewards us with acknowledgments of the games he plays. He seems to summarize the message of the text in one of the narrator’s memories: “Deep down, we were afraid …afraid of the kind of world he was setting up inside us. How he had gotten into our heads … It was ingenious and sacrosanct and troubling.” This apt line appears a quarter of the way through the text, and there is truth in it, even though it is presented to us in detail about the class reaction to Simon’s cryptic text.

The world Brunetti crafts for us is dark and disturbing. Or, perhaps it only exists that way through the narrator’s eyes when considering the state of his life. Troubling, nonetheless. Later, an apology from Brunetti, disguised as another description of Simon’s newer testaments: “There’d be no explanations. You read at your own risk … sometimes it was everlasting.” And everlasting is the perfect word for this text. Nothing is tied up neatly for us; you will not close this book feeling satisfied. Brunetti does not mean to satisfy you. Simon’s newer testaments were only the beginning, and his unknown twelve followers are implanted with the need to continue on the narrative when they are ready. Brunetti’s Newer Testaments is just the beginning, and we will struggle, reflect, argue against, concede, and carry on when we are ready.

Newer Testaments, by Philip Brunetti. Austin, Texas: Atmosphere Press, November 2020. $17.99, paper.

Nora E. Webb is a high school English teacher from South Carolina working on her Master’s in English Literature. She reads, writes, and then goes to read more. Her favorite things to read are anything with a feminist or psychological slant, mythological references, or dystopian vibes (bonus points awarded for combinations of the above). In her free time, she enjoys writing, binge-watching The Good Place on repeatlistening to Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, and playing with her cat, Maybelle. 

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