Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel is an achievement. It’s the kind of book that reaffirms that books made of pulp and ink and glue still have something to offer (if that was in any doubt). It sits heavy in your hand.
It also belongs to a certain genre of novels the genius of which lies in stunning artifice. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is kind of the archetype of these books, but there are others that come to mind, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Like both of these other books, Bats consists of texts within texts and, like House of Leaves, explores how graphic design can enrich the reading experience. Beyond the use of color to differentiate different texts within the book, one of Bats‘ books-within-a-book is presented as scans of a physical book, complete with a bullet hole through each page. Did I mention there’s an envelope at the back with a secret message waiting for the reader to reach it? This book is really cool.
The plot of Bats consists of the stories of the Thomas family in two different eras: 1843 and in 2143. Dodson mixes alternative history and speculative fiction as he tells the story of Zadock Thomas delivering a letter to a general in the Republic of Texas and his descendant Zeke mulling his future in the Texas city-state 200 years later. Much of the narrative tension comes from the resonances of these men’s stories and the societies around them. For instance, Zadock’s horse is named Raison D’Etre and Zeke’s best friend is Raisin Dextra, and weapons in both eras are known as “sabres.”
So why am I writing about this work of fiction on this blog that’s supposed to be a place for scholarship? Beyond the fact that Bats happened to be what I’ve been reading, the novel also sets itself around two cultural institutions that feel relevant to my future studies in Public History:
In the 1843 timeline, Zadock is apprenticed to Joseph Gray, a formerly successful businessman who has opened a Museum of Flying. Dedicated to the appreciation of birds and winged insects, it is also one of the first places the through-running image of the bat is introduced. Gray faces all the obstacles of museum operators today: he must maintain his collection, nurture patron relationships, and often find ways to accommodate wealthy patrons’ interests through compromise, as when someone gifts the museum a poorly mounted bison. He relies on fundraising galas and the work of apprentices (interns) to keep the doors open. Gray’s audience is quite niche (though I think his museum sounds pretty great) and he doesn’t seem able (perhaps he doesn’t want to?) expand it. Suffice it to say that Gray’s museum felt very familiar.
In 2143, Zeke lives in a somewhat dystopic society characterized by ubiquitous surveillance. This constant invasion of privacy grew out of an attempt to better record individuals’ lives to capture the history of the community, but there have been unintended consequences. Every conversation generates a record, every piece of paper must be “carbon’d” and a copy deposited in the Vault. This called to mind the first time I learned about the concept of deaccessioning and realized its necessity. Even worse, access to the Vault is limited to its employees, who must prick their fingers to enter the building. I think of how intimidating the process of using an archive was the first few times I ventured in: first registering, then signing in, then asking for a specific box of records that I hoped contained what I thought I wanted/needed and waiting for it to be delivered–not for the casual visitor. In Bats, this limited access allows employees to counterfeit records and frame innocent people. In archives in our world, the limited access just means that we hear from limited voices.
So what does Bats ultimately have to say about museum and archive work? The text treats the Museum of Flying and the intention of the Vault with respect and characters care about these institutions. Beyond that, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the book as a whole and, well, to say the plot is twisty is to get somewhere near what it’s like. So it will take some processing. As my reading turns mostly academic, I’ll let this story percolate and I’ll report back if I have any epiphanies! I heartily recommend Bats of the Republic, especially to those who love intricacy even if it’s a little gimmicky at times.