The Ylem isn't so much a place as it is the canvas places are painted on. Here I can live every decision and detail of an infinite number of me. Of course the shooting cuts a huge red slash through my personal Ylem, like a line in the financial pages after a stock market crash. Sometimes I was able to resist Eris for weeks, or months, before pulling the trigger. A couple of times she never got to me at all.
There are endless realities shifting and swirling in the Ylem, and I've lived them all. Nothing else to do, really. I died a baby due to bronchitis, and never felt anything more than cold and a harsh thimble full of air. There was an "accident" – that's what the principal called it – in eighth grade. I was accidentally cornered and kicked so hard in the ribs that splinters of bone tore right through my guts. I didn't even die till seventh period, in World Literature. (Ch. 7)
Nick Mamatas' latest novel, Bullettime might be his most (un)timely and socially relevant novel yet, as a novel he had published in August 2012 has connections with one of the more horrific mass shootings in American history. I was re-reading Bullettime this weekend for this review; I began just before news broke of the killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As a teacher (even if currently a sub while I hope that a mid-term position opens up; the day the shooting occurred, I worked with first graders), the events moved me. As a former worker with teens with severe emotional behavioral disorders, the events in protagonist David Holbrook's life are too eerily similar to the case histories of the residential treatment patients I taught and mentored. As a former classmate to someone who brought a shotgun (unloaded) to school back in the late 1980s, there is that belated awareness of those who "didn't fit in" with the local school cliques. As I re-read Bullettime slowly this weekend, taking breaks due to bronchitis and the need to let the emotional moments subside, I came to appreciate Mamatas' approach toward issues such as character-felt helplessness and the callous cruelty of mass society that can turn an introverted, bullied youth into a mass killer.
Through the use of a multiverse-like entity, the Ylem, Bullettime slows down the action periodically (a metaphorical "bullet time") to show a Dave Holbrook (who sometimes addresses himself in the third person, as someone outside the immediate path of action being followed) at various critical junctures in his young life. He is assaulted frequently at school, called "faggot" repeatedly, has no luck with women, abuses the "syrup" to make it through yet another hellacious day. His family is dysfunctional and he has no real friends. He is cast adrift, with only a mysterious new classmate (later revealed to be the Greek goddess of discord) who pays any sort of attention. No matter which branching the Ylem Dave follows, in each and every case his life ends by the age of forty.
Too easily this could be a sophomoric attempt at exploring concepts of fate and what motivates mass shooters. Mamatas, however, largely avoids falling into the pit of trite, shallow exploration of these themes by showing us a Dave who does (temporarily) find some hope, a Dave who questions if all of these poor fates are pre-ordained, then why not choose the one where he gains the notoriety that replaces the lack of affection in his life? This question is a very troubling one, obviously, as witnessed by the frequent and mostly futile attempts to explain mass shooter motivations. It is too easy to demonize these people, to make them "other," something somehow less than human. As if this "less than human" status had not already been conferred upon them, either by their self-loathing or by their (perceived) shabby treatment by society. Based on personal experience, some of the most eager to please and to be liked individuals were those who had committed horrific deeds (I once taught a resident who had set a dog on fire, for example). By having Dave be, if not quite "likable," a sympathetic character, Mamatas derails that quick line from shooter rationale to "shooter is crazy/evil." We are forced to confront the unsettling notion that our society may be at least as responsible for creating the environment for these shootings, not through mass media such as TV, movies, or video games, but rather through the way that Americans are conditioned to treat one another, whether it be family, friends, or people we encounter who are a bit different from ourselves.
The SF/fantasy elements (Eris, the Ylem) add a greater sense of "reality" to Dave's situation. As Eris interacts with the various Dave timelines, we see her control him through sex, through the withholding of sex, through the manipulation of others to affect Dave's sensibilities. She is the embodiment of discord, but also a concrete metaphor for an unbalanced society in which the school officials, parents, and classmates display their own brutalities and pettiness that beggar anything Dave does in most of his timelines. By showing this, Mamatas is not merely making Dave sympathetic; he is illustrating how our culture degrades and crushes the spirits of countless "lost souls" like Dave's, to the point where the sense of predetermined dark fate and helplessness set in to such a degree that mass murder becomes a plausible "out" option:
I'm not Dave Holbrook; I'm just the part of Dave Holbrook who wasn't insane. She had so many ways and so many tricks; in the Ylem I see them all very clearly, and while poor lost Dave twists and writhes against a million predestinations, like a prisoner being prodded to the lip of a grave at bayonet point, at the crack of a whip, from the tug of a leash around his neck. Eris is truly a goddess. It's scary to see free will in action. They control the rest of us. If they're flame, we're moths. (Ch. 7)
Stories of those who commit horrific acts of violence depend upon a strong, focused narrative. Mamatas' narrative moves at a rapid clip through its 225 print page, as it becomes evident by the novel's midpoint that Dave has three main options remaining: 1) to become the eternal bullied kid deprived of any parental love; 2) to become a cult-like leader after his murder spree, the Kallis Episkopos, devoted to the worship of Eris; 3) to forgo murder and to live out a miserable life caring for his mother in a run-down New Jersey town. As the chapters quickly switch from Dave-in-Ylem to the various timeline Daves as they progress down their paths, the action picks up not because there is necessarily violence (even in the more violent paths, the shootings are not described in graphic detail), but because the reader becomes so invested in trying to see which path Dave will choose that there is little wasted verbiage or action.
If there were a flaw to Bullettime, it might be that things move a bit too rapidly, that some scenarios deserved more exposition. But on the whole, the novel carefully balances its disturbing concept with a very well-developed protagonist whose lives and situations feel all too real to those of us who have known people like Dave Holbrook...or at least did not ignore them and shunt them aside like most others have done. For some, reading Bullettime so soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre (or the Aurora, Colorado shootings or the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, or...the list has grown too long already for just 2012 alone) may not "be the right time." But a larger question, one that Mamatas himself hinted at in the Acknowledgements page discussing the difficulties he had getting this novel published due to the rash of school shootings whenever he seemed he might land a publication deal for this novel, is "why not now?" Some stories, fictions they may be, can give us greater insight into horrific mass actions than any month's worth of vapid news coverage can ever achieve, because in the best fictions of this sort, asking the brutal questions about ourselves and our own possible roles in shaping the course of events (the fates) of people like Dave Holbrook can be more readily received than if this were a journalistic account. Bullettime happens to be one of those rare novels (another that comes to mind when it comes to getting into the head of a killer is Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, the non-fiction/novel hybrid about Gary Gilmore's life/death) that transcends the events and goes straight toward our hearts and guts. It may not be what many would like to read, but Bullettime does an outstanding job at making those receptive respond in a fashion that can be cathartic.