BY ELI RYDER
If this were a typical review of a typical book, it’d start with a few catchy lines, maybe a summary of the text, providing skim-reading literati enough information to decide whether the review, and by extension, the text being reviewed, is their cuppa or not. Genre words like horror, bizarro, surreal, and suspense would attempt to box this book into some convenient framework by which it might be pre-judged.
Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Entropy In Bloom isn’t a typical book, so it won’t be getting a typical review.
Sure, there’s a summary that can be expressed. The underlying theme driving the collection is, well, entropy—the degradation of a system from a state of order to a state of chaos—and the beauty that can sometimes be found therein. Johnson’s characters are on the precipice of destruction, and we fall over that precipice with them into chaos—or redemption. It’d be easy to categorize a text whose unifying theme is descent into disorder as an exploration in loss—and some of these stories certainly open those kinds of wounds—but in this collection, there’s hope in oblivion.
The Tech Specs: sixteen stories, all previously published save the last, “The Sleep of Judges,” a sweat-inducing novella chronicling a desperate husband and father’s quest for revenge. One Pushcart-nominated short, heartbreaking in its shouldn’t-be-a-surprise ending: “Snowfall.” Gut-punches of emotion, not only in “Snowfall,” but also “Luminaries” and “The Gravity of Benham Falls.” And, so that no twisted appetite is left unsatisfied, sharp body-horror in “The League of Zeroes” and “When Susurrus Stirs,” two grisly tales of metamorphosis.
In another story of metamorphosis, “Dissociative Skills,” Johnson provides one of the most intriguing where-do-we-go-from-here opening lines a vignette about escalation could have: “Curt Lawson felt like a surgeon right up to the moment he snorted the horse tranquilizer.” The next few lines reveal a surgical kit set up in a decidedly non-surgical setting, and we realize that the teenage Curt is about to undertake an act of Special K-fueled rebellion against his alcoholic father and apathetic mother. Interestingly, using the horse tranquilizer in partial response to his father’s substance abuse creates an ironic disjunction that pervades not just this story, but the collection in general, in that Curt eventually becomes something more than he was through his destruction: a proud achiever, of sorts.
That story also contains what might be considered the collection’s thesis: “Her laugh seemed to Curt like the sound of a zoo animal finding the humor in its cage.” This is Curt’s mother surrendering to her circumstances and finding joy, however dysfunctional, in the horror of it all. Characters in the collection, whether due to societal pressures, psychological fracture, or plain bad luck, find themselves in horrific situations and still discover some glimmer of light, achieve some kind of enlightenment as a result of those circumstances. That’s the human experience. Our moments of highest potential occur when we are broken. We become something new in the repair, so new that repair may not even be the right word.
In a typical review, this conclusion would list a few writers that Johnson emulates/is reminiscent of/is influenced by. Again, Entropy in Bloom is ill-represented by the tropes of a typical review. There are clear ties to Palahniuk’s “Guts” and Choke, connections to Stephen King’s emotional symphony in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and even loose ties to the sliver of positivity spiked at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Where Entropy in Bloom separates itself is in the “bloom:” the beauty in all that horror is the point here, and not a side effect. As a result, this is a many-tentacled beast of its own family, genre, and species.
TL;DR: This is your cuppa. In political landscapes that include terms like “Mother Of All Bombs,” “Alternative Facts,” and “Nuclear Solutions,” it’s comforting to be reminded of a fundamental human truth: we are, to the last, capable of finding humor in our cage.
Here, a typical review would end with a neat little wrap-up line that puts a bow on the whole thing. Instead, I’ll just tell you that the last line of the review doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t be reading it anyway. You should be reading Entropy in Bloom. You have great things to look forward to.
Eli Ryder writes fiction and drama, teaches literature and composition, and abhors maple bars that dare to parade around without bacon. He is the Drama Editor of The Coachella Review.