Murder in “Utopia,, by Bryan Perkins

murder in utopiaIn perhaps the most bizarre way I’ve ever convinced myself to crack open a book, the blurb for Murder in “Utopia,, hooked me with, of all things, a damn haiku:

Who am I today?
Who am I tomorrow, then?
How can I be both?

I initially thought this little poem was cleverly introspective, but after finishing Bryan Perkins’s novella, I realized that there was a second, possibly cleverer, intended interpretation.

The Concept:  A
Utopia, dystopia, who can tell the difference anymore?  The events of this story take place in a future world similar to our own, but in which some modern concerns have been remedied a bit too much.  For example, since so many people hate their jobs, people now have to work a mandatory minimum of roughly twelve hours a week (I thought it was ten, but based on one bit of dialogue, I might have been wrong about that).  But everyone still hates their jobs and complains that they don’t have enough time for socializing and personal fulfillment.  It’s a frighteningly believable extension of an entitled culture.

But the concept of Murder in “Utopia,, is so much more than just the futuristic setting.  It’s the lack of names for any character.  It’s the confusion resulting from a psychologist telling a priest about her patients and her patients giving the same priests confessions.  It’s the complete lack of quotation marks, making it difficult at times to know who’s talking when, and which time a story is being told firsthand or secondhand.  It’s definitely a challenging read, but the premise to the book is imaginative and encouragingly non-formulaic.

The Execution:  B
Unfortunately, the concept is so unusual that it almost defeats itself in its execution.  Had I not read the author’s explanation before reading the book, I might have been even more lost.  It’s impossible to tell for sure, of course, and as Perkins claims that “confusion is part of the experience,” it’s not as though my puzzlement can be chalked up to bad writing.  It’s supposed to feel like that, and I’m unaccustomed to being baffled on such a basic level when I read.  But I guess that’s supposed to be the point.

Disregarding my befuddlement, however, the execution was pretty good.  The progression of events, as best I could place them, made sense in its own kind of twisted, absurd style.  I think the author accomplished exactly what he set out to accomplish.  And it’s worth noting that, after a while, I got pretty used to parsing the nameless, quotation-less exchanges.

As I got deeper into the plot, I became gripped by a desire to figure it out.  There were so many oddities and details that could have been clues to the strange nature of the narrative, and I read in a continuous and ultimately futile attempt to piece them all together before the answer could be revealed to me.

Writer’s Voice:  B-
The overall tone of the novella is consistent.  It helps that most of it is related conversationally, which helps the reader immerse in the events the same way she would while a friend relates a personal anecdote.   There were a few moments when the dialogue seemed a little clunky or unrealistic and there were a few comedic moments that I thought came across as more awkward than intended.  But the consistency of the tone—especially in spite of the fact that so many different characters speak—works both as thematic fodder and as a way to soothe the reader into overcoming the inherent obstacles of the book.

Overall, despite its often gory subject matter, Murder in “Utopia,, is written to be light, casual, witty, and charming.

The X-Factor:  B
I get the sense that, in front of a wide audience, the conclusion of this book would be very polarizing:  lots of people would hate it and lots of people would love it.  While I didn’t hate it, I lean more toward that side of the imaginary spectrum.  The ending made sense, and it was written well enough that I didn’t feel cheated or anything, but I guess I was hoping for something a little more mindblowing.  While it does provide a basis for the many quirks and eccentricities throughout the book, the ending just didn’t do it for me.

However…there are tons of great little moments scattered throughout the pages of this novella.  I loved the scene in which a fast food worker confronts the demeaning, demoralizing nature of her job.  I appreciated the abandonment of conventional chapter numbering.  I enjoyed the little details of futuristic life. I was fascinated by the complete lack of any male characters whatsoever (and I’m still not sure whether that was a clue to the ending or a red herring).  So even though I didn’t really like the finale, I have a hard time being properly disappointed by it.

Which is weird.  Which makes it very fitting.

The Verdict on “Utopia,,:  B
This is perhaps a good example of fiction that’s more of an experience than a story.  I’m not going to list it among my all-time favorites, but I’m glad I read it.  Perkins took some admirable risks with this book and made a concerted effort to cut against the grain, and that kind of thing can often end in utter disaster.

This did not.

Murder in “Utopia,, defies many conventions of storytelling and formatting, but it manages to do so without becoming incomprehensible.  It’s confusing, but that confusion is grounded by a conversational tone, a well-drawn setting, and an absurd, morbid splash of humor.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to take a bit more of a cerebral adventure than your average piece of genre fiction has to offer.

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