>>Finally got around to it: March 2013
Stephen looks at his brother over their mother’s shoulder while she leans down to attach the bandage to his ear. Michael’s looking at him and he’s thinking—and this is one of the clearest thoughts he’s ever had—he’s thinking: What’s wrong with me? Why would I do that to you?
Once she’s attached the bandage to Stephen’s ear and given him a good, strong hug, she turns around, swivels her head, and her eyes find Michael in the corner.
She sees something in his eyes. The look she gives him says: There’s something rotten inside you. I can see it. There is something wrong with you. You’re a terrible, terrible boy, and I don’t love you anymore.
The boys’ father walks in the back door, folding and tossing his newspaper on the kitchen table. He looks at no one.
Growing up, Michael remembers sometimes wondering what it was that their father stuffed into him and his brother, what things he crammed into those holes that he dug in them both. Standing in that kitchen—the smell of his mother, the sad, confused eyes of his brother across the room, and his father walking through the wreckage as if none of it touched him—Michael realizes that those things his father dug and stuffed into his children were pieces of himself.
Pieces of himself that he didn’t like.
A little bit of The Good Son, mixed with a healthy dose of Memento and a pseudo-personality-swapping structure that in some ways echoes Lynch’s Lost Highway, Brett Alexander Savory’s In and Down is a narrative matryoshka painted with a twisted, grime-drenched carnival aesthetic. It’s about learned hatred, assumed blame, the misconceptions and cruelties of childhood, and the many, often dangerous, ways siblings target and wound one another.
Stephen and Michael are brothers—Stephen being the eldest, and Michael the story’s focus. Michael is in many ways a delicate boy. He is frequently picked on by Stephen, sees his father as a rough, guttural example of a man (who’s personality is a toxic mess of racism and neglect), and is investigating the whys and wherefores of his mother’s disappearance.
In searching for his mother, and by result his sense of self and place among things, Michael discovers a letter written by her, detailing her reasons for leaving—because of the unease she felt living with one of the two boys. Michael’s search for answers quickly intensifies, leading him into a lucid dream state where he encounters Hob, a guide or ringmaster of sorts for the carnival of Michael’s mind. Dressed in a green suit and purple top hat, Hob opens the door for Michael, starting him on a journey to the very centre of his being. As Michael travels deeper into his dream and with greater frequency, he meets an assortment of characters like Marla, Smithy, and Crimley, each representative of another aspect of the journey (such as the construct of the ideal woman/mother carved from a block of wood and personalized, or the permanent mask worn to shield one from the hideousness of self).
In and Down is not a book you read once. Savory has gone to great trouble to give each and every character a sense of physicality, and of purpose—even if that purpose is at first obscured. From the dead dogs buried in Michael and Stephen’s backyard, to their father’s obvious racism, and the slow, steady descent into the dream carnival’s freak show—and by proxy the rotten core of Michael (and possibly Stephen)—In and Down is about a slow peeling back of the layers, like a hangnail that when tugged tears a long strip of skin up the side of one’s finger.
Michael is, in many ways, an unreliable narrator. We can’t trust him because he doesn’t truly know himself. The sense of discovery in In and Down is richly apparent in the bleeding of realities via Michael’s dream descent. And as the elevator gets closer and closer to the bottom, and the carnival is inundated more and more with freak show attractions, clowns, and single-serving acquaintances, Michael comes closer to learning the truths about his mother’s disappearance and his difficult relationship with his father and brother. Nowhere is this unsettling sense of discovery more obvious than when a clown drapes a blanket over Michael and “he closes his eyes, sucks the heat into himself. Buries his face in the fabric of the blanket and inhales.
“It smells like makeup and dirt.”
Without spoiling certain late-novel events, I began to ponder part-way through the narrative if ever there were two brothers, or if there had only ever been one, and the trip through the carnivalesque nightmare world was in fact a slow-motion psychological break—one child feeling responsible for the disappearance of a parent and needing something to blame, and crafting that something into the body and mind of a brother that never existed in the first place.
I wish I could say I felt with total confidence that this was the case, but as previously mentioned and more than any book I’ve read in recent months, I think I need to start back at the beginning and give In and Down a second read.
Savory’s story is not difficult, nor is it convoluted, but it’s easy to slide down the mountain of vivid imagery (with too many fucking clowns for comfort) without giving it too much thought at first, only to look behind after the fact and realize what it was that had just been revealed. Michael and Stephen are believable as children—their voices feel authentic without being “written down to.” And the sporadic use of images and illustrations, such as dirty, handwritten notes, add emphasis and an air of the macabre without disrupting the narrative flow.
I was pleasantly surprised by In and Down and how it not only subverted expectations as I was reading it, but has continued to change in my mind as I’ve taken the time to really think about it in the days since finishing. It’s an unsettling look at the lives of children and siblings, and of memory and assumption, and it is not to be breezed through lightly. Take your time with this one. Pick it apart—you’ll be glad you did.