Joseph March, the hero of Alexander Maksik’s novel Shelter In Place, has two problems: tar, and a bird. The tar is the black, creeping heaviness of his depression, which comes along with periods of mania; the bird is the painful part, the part that pierces his chest. He has bipolar disorder (or rather has something unnamed that, with its cycles from up to down, resembles it), and he’s constantly haunted by his own, inexplicable, internal rhythms of pain and joy. Alexander Maksik has lit upon a perfect metaphor for severe depression.
Weirdly—and luckily—the book’s not actually about that. It’s not really about Joseph’s problems at all, I think. It seems to be about one thing, and then another, and then another, with layers of meaning and desire unfolding throughout the book. There is a frame story—with Joseph having been left alone by Tess, the woman have loves. And he flashes back to 1991, when he first experienced his depression and when his mother killed a man with a hammer, and he and Tess moved to the town where she was being held.
But then the novel opens, transforms. It’s not really about mental illness at all. It’s about violence: about the violence of men against women, the domestic and sexual abuse that, back in the 90s, was often ignored or even denied by others. Which is followed (inevitably, at least the way the book tells it) by the violence of women against the abusers, when they are finally fed up with the situation. And finally it is about the deep divide that separates these women from the book’s good men, like Joseph and his peace-loving, kind-hearted father, who often can’t fully share in that righteous anger even if they see its justification. The characters with the most dynamism, who propel the action (and the violence), are seen from the outside and remain mysteries, just as any loved one, finally, does.
Perhaps fittingly for a book about violence, the novel is written less like a story than like, well, a manifesto—the rantings of an unstable man living alone too long. The prose is staccato, and sometimes chilling. It can also be repetitive and melodramatic:
“I’m nervous. I don’t like that she’s gone to see my mother alone. I don’t like that she’s so happy about it. That she’s so enamored with her. I don’t know why that is, other than to say I felt betrayed somehow.”
Tense switching issues aside (and there certainly are some mystifying choices in that department), the language is often not quite original enough to render these short, choppy, over-explaining sentences pleasant. Maksik has a strong voice, an idiosyncratic rhythm all its own, and that alone probably makes an author worth reading: someone who can make of the English language something new, if not always pleasurable to read. Still, I felt myself getting impatient: could I get a full sentence please? Is this really worth so many periods?
Well, maybe it is. Despite being unsubtle in its language, the book is sensitive and delicate in its ideas and its characterizations—even of Tess, the love interest who becomes deeply enamored with Joseph’s murderous mother, and sometimes teeters on the brink of becoming a sort of fantasy figure of a strong, angry, beautiful warrior woman. Like its depressed narrator, who feels he has an utterly inadequate filter to keep the world from hurting him, the novel is full of empathy for everyone, even its villains.
With all that—flawed prose, strong voice, strong characters, strange ideas—is it worth reading? I would say, cautiously, yes.