HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

Human Trees

Melbourne’s Matthew Revert probably doesn’t ring a bell for most regular visitors of this blog – Human Trees is not exactly sci-fi. Yet he has made quite a name for himself within a small circle of experimental music lovers, with releases on seminal labels like Graham Lambkin’s Kye, and Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Known on a larger scale is his graphic design, Revert being “perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing” as noted by Gabino Iglesias in his glowing review of this novel.

Human Trees is Revert’s fifth book. It might be of interest to some speculative fiction fans, as some of those like their fiction weird and a bit surreal. This has a good dose of that – it is mainly set in the waiting rooms of a hospital where clocks and other timekeeping devices don’t function. I have seen other reviewers casually throw around names like David Lynch, Kafka and Beckett, so if those references trigger you: please read on.

For starters, a few words on the content are in order – I’ll quote a bit from the back. The book is about two brothers who “are thrust into one another’s reluctant company” as they learn their parents haven been admitted to a hospital with life threatening conditions. “As their wait continues and unattended patients die around them, the brothers are forced to confront the confusing abuse of their past.”

Human Trees is a short book: 142 pages only – yet I made about 4 times the notes as I normally do for books thrice as long. Generally those notes had to do with one of three things: the prose, a slight, nightmarish absurdism and the book’s emotive content.

Revert’s writing can be a bit dense on a sentence level. There is a bit of mannerism to his prose, making reality an actor in the story. This is achieved by making objects and the likes the subject of active sentences, something that can be observed twice in this passage:

The expression on the woman’s face journeys from caution to dread and Robert feels smaller while witnessing this journey. Questions believe in the existence of an answer capable of validating them.

While it took me out of the story sometimes, drawing too much attention to itself as style, in other cases it also managed to force a perceptional shift, shedding a different light on the reality described – and that is no mean feat.

There’s poetry here, and that is a strength and a weakness at the same time, as much of poetry’s appreciation is so personal.

He scrunches the money in his hand while watching the taxi drive away, disappearing like the last moment of sunlight. It occurs to Robert he has not been breathing since exiting the taxi, so he directs effort toward doing so before dropping the intended fare to the ground. He stares at the light attacking the glass doors leading into the hospital’s main entrance. There is too much of it.

A sentence like the one about breathing seems contrived, but I can understand its appeal at the same time. The light one on the other hand is straight out fantastic, so what’s a reviewer got to do?

Another matter is the book’s absurdism. If I’m informed correctly, Revert’s previous books were much more of an absurdist affair than Human Trees is – tagged as Bizarro fiction, should that mean anything to you. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of absurdism. That is not to say I do not enjoy authors or artists often associated with the absurd. I would even say that Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe, David Lynch and Franz Kafka are among my favorite storytellers – but I would hesitate to call their work absurd.

I think all-out-absurdism often is too easy, a cop out. Especially in stories it tends to chip away at emotional investment. If anything can happen, if random is the law, that often nullifies the reality of emotions.

Luckily, Revert keeps things in check here. While some of his choices are a tad easy – the messenger children are a bit of a trope in uncanny situations – the absurd doesn’t dominate the narrative, and generally adds to the atmosphere and its emotions instead of distracting from it. Yet I would not go as far as claiming Revert manages the same level of balance and depth as M. John Harrison did in the superb You Should Come With Me Now.

Again: what’s a reviewer got to do? There’s a couple of truly great scenes in Human Trees, but the entire episode with the stabbed man didn’t connect with me. I suspect – given the importance it is given via the title – that there is some idiosyncratic symbolism involved here. So again, highly personal appreciation dictates absurdism’s success – a good deal more so than is the case for ‘regular’ fiction I suspect.

A few final words on those emotions. Human Trees doesn’t seem to be written from a happy perspective. Parental abuse and their little sister dying were formative for the Larson brothers. There’s angst and phobia, and Robert, the main character, hasn’t made peace with the world yet.

There was a lingering emptiness, which Robert absorbed into his character, but life, he would come to learn, was a procession of new emptinesses to explore, absorb and forget.

While I cannot claim to have been happy my entire life, I simply cannot relate with the book’s main atmosphere – which sometimes has something of unfledged rebellion to it. I do not feel life is empty. I do not feel afraid.

That said, I do think Human Trees manages to evoke something of how certain people feel, and again, that is no mean feat – even though Robert suspects “that all empathy is self-absorption.”

A difficult book to market – give it a go, you might like it a lot.

Consult the author index for all my other reviews.

8 responses to “HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

  1. Difficult, indeed, from what I can glean from your words. And the core concept, the one about non-working clocks in a hospital waiting room, cuts too close to past experiences in such waiting rooms – where time and life seem to take a break and you feel transported into another world – for my comfort. This is the kind of book to be approached with extreme caution, I think…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry to read you spent too much times in hospitals, so indeed, this could cut close, and I would not call it cathartic in that respect either, so I’m sure you’re not in the right mood for this. Others shouldn’t be scared to tackle it, ‘extreme caution’ might be a bit overstated. It’s not really a difficult book though – my bad if I gave that impression.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bizarro fiction, no thank you. I’ve several books in that vein several years ago to see if that genre was for me (there were a lot of indie offerings) and I simply gave up on it in complete and utter disgust. I can’t speak for this book, but bizarro seems to be the mental pukings of a writer who thinks much more highly of himself than is warranted in reality.

    For your sake I’m glad you enjoyed this book. But the few lines you quoted were enough for me to know that I’d be raving against this book and author by the time I was finished.

    I clicked on the authors tag but this was the only book with it. Have you read previous books by him? You mention that this is his 5th book….

    Liked by 1 person

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