Jennifer Marie Brissett – Elysium

I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, because it was nominated for the Otherwise Award, the Locus First Novel Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. To be completely honest, I was curious mostly because the cover kind of stands out (I’m not a fan of it) – but that much acclaim can’t come from nothing, right? When Tom chose this book to be the August Sword & Laser book club pick, I was super excited to finally read it.

by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Published: Aqueduct Press, 2014
eBook: 190 pages
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: >>
>> open bridge

A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

I love a book that is also a puzzle and this one definitely fits that description. There is a relatively small cast of characters that we follow throughout the story but these characters are… let’s say fluid. The first thing you notice is the gender swap between chapters one and two. Adrienne, our protagonist, is suddenly Adrian. Her boyfriend Antoine turns into Antoinette, their friend (sometimes more than that) Hector becomes Helen, and so on. Sometimes, the protagonists are gay, sometimes straight, sometimes transgender, you get the idea. But character genders and sexuality isn’t the only thing Brissett flips upside down several times throughout this book. The relationship between these characters also shift from romantic partners to friends to various family relations… it’s definitely weird but it’s also kind of fun to discover, in any new chapter, how these people relate to each other now.

The plot continues this general air of weirdness but there is a little more of a red thread to follow. While the cover hints at a post-apocalyptic world, it’s not until late into the book that this actually becomes a plot point. This is one of the hardest books to talk about without spoiling anything, so I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping it super vague.
Each scenario we follow puts Adrianne and Antoine in a close relationship and whether they are romantic partners, siblings or a father-son-duo, it’s their love for each other that is the one constant in this book. We may start out in a relatively normal city setting, but the plot takes us through numerous different versions of this place, some indeed post-apocalyptic, others harder to pin down. Their friend Hector first shows up as the man Adrienne is cheating with but in subsequent chapters, appears simply as a friend, and once as a transgender woman.

In between chapters – or sometimes in the middle of them – we also get lines of computer code, hinting at critical errors, at bugfixes, or at the very least at a program running somewhere in the background. It makes you question the whole idea of this novel. Is anything real? Is one of the characters an android? What the hell is happening?? The thing I said out loud the most while reading this book was “I am so confused!” which at least made my boyfriend laugh a lot.

For about the first half of the book, I kept on reading because I wanted to make sense of the mystery. I wanted to know which set of characters was real, if any. I didn’t mind the gender-flipping but I at least wanted to find out how the characters truly related to each other and which version of the world was the real one, or the one where everything started. Here’s a piece of advice: Don’t try to figure it out. That’s not the point of this novel.
I’m not sure I truly understood the point but by the end,but  at least I could narrow it down to a certain message and a coherent theme.

A brief note on the audiobook. I liked how narrator Jamye Mari Grant told this story and made the voices distinct, especially with the frequent changes in gender and sometimes age. I’m not so sure about the snippets of computer program, but that may be more the book’s fault than the narrator’s. The lines of code were read in a fittingly robotic voice, but many times, these sequences end in a string of ones and zeroes that simply go on way too long. When reading the phyiscal book, these lines can simply be skipped, but for the audiobook someone should have made the decision to cut them down. Two lines of 100100001110010100 would have been enough to get the idea. We don’t need a full 30 seconds of Grant reading out ones and zeroes… But that’s a minor quibble for an otherwise excellently read audiobook.

It’s now a couple of days after I finished listening to this book and I’m still not sure whether it’s brilliant or a bit of a mess. The mystery does get kind of resolved but many questions are left unanswered because they are simply rendered unimportant. I found the themes quite wonderful and I loved how Brissett manages to make her characters real and believable, no matter the setting or circumstances. Adrienne may worry for her very sick partner Antoine in one chapter, and in the next Antoine may be Adrian’s big brother – but in each version, their love felt real. This being a very short book, it’s all the more impressive how quickly the author built a whole new set of rules in each chapter, introduced us to new character dynamics, and made everyone come across as three-dimensional human beings. It also takes a bit of work to forget who the characters were before, because whatever their flaws in one chapter have been, they never existed in the next.

I’ve purposefully left out any information about the later chapters of the book but those were definitely my favorites. The world building becomes a lot clearer, new characters are introduced and the entire book gains a sense of coherence. This is also where the central themes truly get to shine. In the end, it’s hard to know what the author set out to do and whether it was accomplished through this experimental mode of storytelling. Elysium is definitely a book unlike any other I’ve read before. Only time will tell if it leaves a lasting impression or if it was just a book I enjoyed while it lasted. Goodreads tells me that Brissett is publishing a new novel in 2021 with Tor Books and even if Elysium doesn’t stick in my mind until then, I am looking forward to reading that new book. She’s clearly very talented and I am curious to see what she comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good


One thought on “Jennifer Marie Brissett – Elysium

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I liked a lot of stuff about Elysium and had some notes about other parts, but 100% I would read more by this author. I didn’t know she had a book with Tor in 2021! That’s great! I will look forward to reading it — it’s always interesting when an author doesn’t release a book for a while and then comes out with something, and you start to get a sense of like, what their overriding interests as an author are going to be. Goody!

    Liked by 1 person

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