“Hear my tale,” howls Mary Shelley’s monster across a frozen wasteland in “Frankenstein.” Hear mine, cries Lucien Swenson, a Shelley fan, and the troubled, vulnerable, alienated narrator of Minnesota author Thomas Maltman’s evocative new novel, “The Land.” Lucien calls to us from northern Minnesota during the winter of 1999, a time when he believes he “walked with angels and demons.”
Lucien’s story, Maltman’s novel (like Shelley’s), is a spiritual quest for meaning, a lamentation on loneliness, and a tense tale of the infectious nature of “paranoia and fear.” If you ask me, it’s a parable for our time.
Lucien hasn’t been the same since a car accident “cracked his skull like a clay jar,” broke his body, and crushed his soul. Lucien “hurts all the time.” He suffers from blackout-inducing migraines (some of Maltman’s most striking prose comes in these moments). Lucien has an “uncertain hold on reality.” It doesn’t help that in his spare time, he’s creating “a computer game called The Land, a post-apocalyptic fantasy.”
Lucien also hasn’t been the same since Maura, the married woman he loves, disappeared. Lucien is obsessed with finding her, a fixation that becomes manic the more pain he endures and the more that winter takes hold. He moves away from family and friends and finds a caretaker’s job close to Maura’s family in the far North Woods, a place where “beyond jack pines,” beyond “the tamarack in their sphagnum bogs … the vast inland sea of Lake Superior brooded.”
Maura’s husband, Elijah, preaches apocalyptic sermons at a white supremacy church, the Rose of Sharon, “a converted ranch house with a cross pinioned to the chimney.” Slowly, Lucien is drawn to the church’s community. He finds a “family of belief” not “a family of blood.” He changes his name from Lucien (“light”) to Meshach (“the one who stood in the fire”). In the church, he’s “not a wounded young man” anymore, “but instead someone strong and fierce.”
The novel is rich with biblical and literary imagery. A few times there’s too much exposition, but Lucien’s search for meaning (and for Maura) quickly moved me beyond those moments. Lucien wonders if he’s the “light or shadow” in this story — if he’s part of a struggle “beyond flesh and blood.”
The novel’s winter landscape is cold and stark and beautifully imagined. It snows heavily and deeply throughout “The Land.” As I read, I couldn’t help thinking about young men in this country who are lost in a winter of their discontent, and seek solace in places of hate like Maltman’s imagined church.
But when I finished reading I was reminded not of Shakespeare, or Shelley, or even the Bible, but of James Joyce. In Joyce’s novella, “The Dead,” Gabriel, the main character, watches the snow fall outside his window when “his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe … upon the living and the dead.”
Carole E. Barrowman is a writer and book critic. She teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
By: Thomas Maltman.
Publisher: Soho Press, $26.
Virtual events: 7 p.m. Oct. 13, via Zoom, hosted by Next Chapter Booksellers, nextchapterbooksellers.com; noon Oct. 20, Literature Lovers, in conversation with Lin Enger, register at bit.ly/33jDdG5