Novel in Five Acts
Benedict Wells’ latest novel is many things: a literary screenplay, a classic coming-of-age story, an homage to 1980s US pop culture and a narrative game that sends readers on a constant search for meaning.
By Antonie Habermas
The setting of the novel Hard Land, which, as expected, has climbed the bestseller lists in no time, is the rather sleepy town of Grady, Missouri – home of a run-down diner, an abandoned factory responsible for the region’s increasing unemployment and a sign pointing out the town’s supposed 49 secrets. What these secrets are is never fully resolved. It’s 1985, and a-ha and Bruce Springsteen are playing on the radio. 15-year-old Sam is plagued by anxiety, a taciturn father, the lack of friends and a cancer-stricken mother. He takes a holiday job at the Metropolis cinema and events begin to happen very quickly. At his new job he meets his future friends: the talkative film nerd Cameron, the reticent football player Brand, whom everyone calls Hightower, and the rebellious Kirstie, with whom Sam promptly falls in love. He goes to parties he was never invited to before, smokes his first cigarette and experiences many a drunken stupor. This all goes well until a tragic incident casts his new world into the abyss.
COMING-OF-AGE PAR EXCELLENCEThe book delivers what the genre promises. The characters meet the expectations of a good coming-of-age drama: an unhappy and introverted teenager (male), a couple of friends with strong personalities (who are not quite as white and heteronormative as they tend to be portrayed in 1980s films), a girl (of course pretty and vivacious, though a vulnerable bookworm at heart). The plot delivers plenty of challenges for our hero to master, and at times there’s a little kitsch – but it’s only just forgivable given the subject matter.
NARRATIVE TRICKSIn the very first sentence, Benedict Wells positions Sam’s decisive event on the horizon. In general, despite the apparent light-footed events, the whole book is a finely constructed narrative structure through and through. Hard Land is not only the title of the novel, but also of the fictional coming-of-age poetry cycle by William Morris, the only person from Grady ever to make a name for himself. It’s the literary pride of the place and must be studied by every 11th grade English class. And if the shared title isn’t revealing enough, the shared form of both works is: “We discussed [...] Morris’s trick of building up the five parts of his poetry cycle like a play.” Hard Land, the novel, is also divided into five parts and follows the pattern of a dramatic play. Both the poetry collection and the novel are clearly self-contained in terms of space and time, and also present only two central female characters.
The use of these narrative elements and the recurring allegorical imagery may be a bit forced. The fact that the English teacher demands that his pupils write an essay on the meaning of the poem cycle, stressing that hardly anyone has yet managed to identify it, suggests that there is also a clearly desired way of interpreting Hard Land, which sets a very narrow scope. This may be a bit irritating, but the novel nevertheless manages to keep the tension going.
Benedict Wells: Hard Land
Zürich: Diogenes, 2021. 352 S.