John Smith, hero of Mortarville, is a unique kind of orphan, grown in a tank of orange goo by his scientist fathers and made a ward of the state after their deaths and his birth (in that order). Unique to us, anywayhe’s a familiar enough specimen to the authorities in the book’s shambles of a world, who maintain a mile-long underground orphanage for boys just like him. Mortarville is his coming-of-age story.
This is Grant Bailie’s second novel. Like his first, Cloud 8 (a numbingly pedestrian vision of the afterlife), it eludes neat summarization in spite of a linear plot. In both books, Bailie shows less interest in the temporal march from one event to another than in the spaces between events. It’s in these spaces that his skill at imagining minds and worlds becomes clear.
The carceral mood in the orphanagea converted prisonis recognizably Dickensian, as are its administrator Mr. Grindlier (“Like a scientist. But, you know, without the lab coat. Or the science.”) and John’s uneasy friendship with the budding delinquent, Sterling Jones. Neither John nor Sterling nor any of their fellows has ever seen the sun, the sky, a tree, a girl. Regardless of their deprivations, most of the young men have the usual longings, longings that become hideously extreme in such a context, and it’s no surprise that John and Sterling’s thoughts frequently turn to escape. Much of the book’s first half is occupied by an account of their attempt to flee to the surface, saved from unreadable bleakness by the integration of accounts of the boys’ smaller acts of rebellion. The tenor of their resistance recalls Hard Times as much as it does David Copperfield, since one of the uniquely oppressive things about their orphanhood is the character of the education they receive. The young men are fed endless images of the world beyond in classes like Outside Prep and Popular Communications, but remain trapped underground. Their escape attempts target the “soft” prison of passive consumerism in addition to their “hard” physical one.
John gives voice to his story in a fashion both empathetic and deadpan. Here he is on one of his and Sterling’s transgressions:
We had discovered an unlocked stairwell and gone up three flights past our authorized area. No one had ever told us what our authorized area was, but we knew we were past it the moment we started.
And here he is on their punishmentcleaning cages in the orphanage’s in-house rodent zoo:
“They’re not really that dirty,” Sterling pointed out, but I polished the chrome with spit and a paper towel anyway. I thought it would make the animals happy. I thought it would make the confusion of their temporary transfer to cardboard boxes seem worth it to them in the end. Look, I could imagine them thinking in their rodent-like way, something is better, shinier, cleaner. It was all worth it. I know I would have wanted it that way if someone had pulled me from a cage only to put me back in the same cage a little while later.
Bailie’s langourous plotting gives John’s talent for imagining other minds room to develop, and many pages are devoted to his daydreams about domestic life on the surface, the varieties of superheroic experience (part of his Popular Communications curriculum), and his mad-scientific origins. But he and we are abruptly wrenched out of the dream world when Sterling leads a revolt against the orphanage’s masters and John finds himself out in the real world, alone, nearing adulthood, theoretically free.
What’s so special about life if anyone can reproduce? Raising children may be hard but having them is easy enoughat least in our world. Mortarville performs a sly inversion of this truism by suggesting that epic projects of creation went into making the boys in the orphanage, then contrasting their unique origins with the crushing monotony of their daily lives. Though people are theoretically able to reproduce normally in Mortarville’s world, unhandsome men like John’s fathers have been forced to turn to mad science. The products of their toil are only distinguished from “normal” people by the way they came into being. (Here there’s continuity with Cloud 8, which imagines a sort of Purgatory where the dead spend their days in cubicles and their nights in bars, just like the living do.) John, being sensitive, is naturally aware of the contrast between his dramatic conception and his mundane life. Here he is on assuming his grown-up job in the city:
It seems impossible to me that this was what my fathers had intended in creating life from scratch. So much sweat and inspiration just to add one more soul to the world’s endless army of middle management hacks. Though it is almost certain that this is what my keepers, teachers, and caretakers at The Home for Invented Boys had intended. Where the Products of Yesterday’s Science are Molded into the Dull Young Men of Tomorrow could have been their slogan. And they molded me well. They broke and rebuilt me almost completely. I tell no one of my special beginnings, my unique origin and oppression. Work is oblivious to the remarkable invention of me. I am like a superhero that never acts. I am silent and can almost forget.
After the insurrection, John eventually becomes a security officer at The Terminal Mall in Mortarville, “a city founded upon the industry of city building” but rapidly de-industrializing and de-populating. As a uniformed man with a gun and a license to kill, he has assumed a position in the adult world at the opposite pole of the power spectrum from the one he had as a young waif. But many elements of his new lifeabusive friendships, domestic fantasies, a prison-like environmentmirror his old one, and as the book escalates to its conclusion, he lets slip a confession of his continuing powerlessness:
[W]hat can security do? We respond to the noise, the panicked calls, the cries for help. We swim against the restless currents of humanity and arrive in time to see it spill over.
John has essentially been put back in the same cage he was pulled from.
Though Mortarville incorporates many more fantastic elements (Gorilla nannies! Semi-sentient wigs!) than those cataloged in this review, its greatest glory is John’s rich interiority. His sincerity and observational skill make the book more than just a feat of expressionism by prompting recognition of the uncanny symmetries to be found between one stage of life and another. In one sense, such a recognition is banalof course patterns of events repeat themselves if we live long enough. But working to understand the forces that drive these recurrences is a fundamental task for anyone, and John works harder than most. Even those of us not created in a secret lab can appreciate that.
Sacha Arnold is a contributing editor at Other magazine and lives in San Francisco.
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