A novel’s just been released that must rank as one of the strangest to come out of Texas. It’s called ‘Bats of the Republic,’ and it offers both an alternative history of the state and a steam-punk-like future. And that’s just the start of how unusual it is. KERA’s Jerome Weeks talked with Texas novelist Zachary Thomas Dodson — in his new home, Finland.
Calling ‘Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel’ one of the strangest books to come from Texas is a strong claim, considering this state has produced both Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling. But Zachary Thomas Dodson’s novel is unusual not just for its story or the alternative Texas that Dodson has invented for it.
“I mean, it’s filled with different objects that you don’t normally find in a book,” he says. “There are books inside books. There are facsimile charts and maps of places real and imagined. There are newspaper clippings, telegrams, hand-written letters. The dust jacket is reversible. And there are bats,” he adds with a laugh.
With all this – plus a sealed letter included inside — it’s almost as if Dodson set out to demonstrate what ink and paper could do that digital books might not. And we haven’t even mentioned the new punctuation he invented or the different-colored inks. Perhaps ‘Bats’ should be considered the ‘anti-Kindle’ (although there actually is a Kindle version).
But Dodson declares, “I’m not anti-Kindle and I’m not anti-e-book. I think those things have enormous possibilities. But I don’t think all the possibility is gone from print books, either. So I don’t think we’re done with the book as a form.”
He prefers the term “maximalist” — he tries to include everything printed literature can do, in contrast to our contemporary preference for spare, sleek, supremely minimalist design in everything from Apple computers to dinner entrees. It shouldn’t come as a surprise Dodson is a graphic designer. He hand-drew all of the maps, letters and animal sketches in ‘Bats of the Republic.’
Dodson grew up in El Paso, went to UT-Austin where he studied humanities (“a catch-all term for uselessness and not really helpful when I wanted to find a job” — but he did find mythology fascinating). Then he studied graphic design instead and ended up in Chicago, designing magazines.
Ten years ago, Dodson and his book-editor friend Jonathan Messinger started featherproof books, an independent press that still exists. The idea was to publish some of the many authors they’d met in the Chicago literary scene, the ones that interested them, plus the two had also been writing books themselves. So it helped to have your own publishing house when, as Dodson admits, his first novel probably should never have been published in the first place.
With featherproof, Messinger edited while Dodson designed, and that’s when he really started thinking about how books are built, how they can work in terms of what he calls “visual narrative.”
“I became more and more interested in book design the more and more that I did it,” he says. “And more interested in how design could really become part of the story rather than just a miniature advertisement for the book on the cover.”
It also took leaving Texas for Dodson to appreciate his home state’s quirks and strange, special character (we’ll use those euphemisms). He learned other states don’t teach their state history the way Texas does – with two full years of classes in grade school. Texas is a state more or less full of mandated Texas history buffs.
“I realized I knew all this stuff about Texas that other people didn’t know about” — in other words, not just the familiar legends of the Alamo or the cattle drives. It also helped that Dodson’s a fifth-generation Texan, so he also drew a little bit on family lore when he started writing ‘Bats’ seven years ago. Which is perhaps why he’s not fazed at all when his novel is described as strange: “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he says happily. “Texas is a strange place.”
Half of ‘Bats’ is set in 1843, when a young naturalist named Zadock Thomas sets out from Chicago to win the hand of his boss’s daughter by going to Texas to deliver a sealed, secret letter to a mysterious general. (Zadock’s a naturalist, so he sketches the animals he encounters along the way. The pictures are included in the book, of course. The title, ‘Bats of the Republic’ is meant to echo Audubon’s ‘Birds of America.)
The other half of the novel happens 300 years later, when Texas is one of seven, walled city-states, the only territories remaining after an unspecified disaster. In this new, highly repressive Texas, tall watch towers keep everyone under surveillance, people are armed with “steam sabers,” communication is done via pneumatic tubes and printed documents are controlled entirely by the official state vault.
And wouldn’t you know it – that old secret letter comes back.
This oddball dystopia — especially the complete lack of electrical devices — sounds more than a little steam-punky. But Dodson shies away from the term because he wasn’t all that interested in molding and explaining an entire world. “It winks at steam punk,” he insists.
‘Bats’ may well bewilder readers with its many family trees and diagrams — and it doesn’t help that Zadock Thomas and his future counterpart Zeke Thomas not only sound alike, they’re rather similar in their passive natures. But critic Keith Donohue argues the novel is about the different ways history and stories are told, and the book’s diagrams and print devices are not just graphic frippery; they’re very much a part of the story-telling method.
“I think it makes you slow down and look at how a story works in a completely different way,” Donohue says.
A year ago, out of something like a Texas spirit of adventure, Dodson and his wife up and moved to Helsinki, Finland — where he teaches graphic design at an art school, Aalto University. He’s the only Texan around, he says, making him something of a local, interesting “character,” even though his classes, which are taught in English, are actually very multi-national, with students from Brazil, Japan, Slovenia, Iraq and elsewhere.
Finland is extremely different from Texas; geographically, it’s almost as far away as you can get from Texas in the northern hemisphere. But it’s not the cold that’s odd, Dodson says (he’s lived in Chicago, after all). It’s the darkness he finds unsettling, with only four hours of sunlight a day in December.
Yet he’s also found the cliche image of the typical Finn echoes that of the Texas cowboy. “All Finns are the tough-as-leather, silent type,” he says. “I shouldn’t stereotype, but just like that’s the received stereotype of the cowboy, the Finns are quiet, they’re serious and they get the job done. And they like to ride horses, which you wouldn’t expect.”
So sure enough, Dodson is now fascinated by that country’s history and legends: “I’m reading a lot of Finnish mythology,” he says. “I’m reading a lot about moon bases, about pyramids. These are the things I’m making notes on now.”
So — a future novel about pyramid-shaped, Finnish moon bases. That might just be more unusual than ‘Bats of the Republic.’