Growth, by A. J. Smith

This novel was really something special, definitely a new favorite and a book that I’ll be coming back to often in the future. It’s undeniably clever, darkly humorous, and highly self-aware. It’s cerebral and incredibly well written. It rewards the reader, and sends them down and through a rabbit hole of literature. I found myself torn between wanting to read it slowly, savoring the prose and unique deconstruction of language, and wanting to quickly arrive at the resolution because the story was so engaging. I ended up reading the first half over three or four days, and slamming the second half all in one sitting.

Growth’s main character Bburke is a relatively uneducated fellow, living a simple life, rooted in the present. His primary pursuits are his artistic passion toward landscaping, and consuming a comically large but sadly plausible quantity of cheap beer. He’s never learned how to properly probe the depths of his lack of self-awareness. Ambrose Bierce’s highly cynical early twentieth century lexical masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary, said it best when it defined Education as: “That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” The question is: To which camp does Bburke belong? Is he wise or foolish?

Sometimes blissful ignorance may be preferable to a better understanding, especially when that better understanding holds the power to make us painfully aware of the sad state of our affairs. Enter S.A. and Dickie T, Bburke’s “well-read” recently higher educated hired helpers at his landscaping company. Bburke is about to receive an education of sorts, whether he’d like to or not.

I loved the unique structure used to frame the story. Different literary forms and styles are stacked and layered, like a cake that at first glance has six layers, but on closer inspection actually contains three sublayers inside each macro one. Hopping from style to style kept things fresh, but throughout all of this was a taut narrative thread, tightly connecting events and creating a barreling momentum. The result was a highly engaging, fun, character based tale that never sacrificed quality prose or form in pursuit of being fun or engaging.

It’s safe to say this is a book written for book lovers. Those familiar with the works of Camus, David Foster Wallace, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and others will be pleasantly surprised. A lot of the main story revolved around the ways in which steeping oneself in literature can change a person, for better and worse. Reading a book is often said to be like having a conversation with the author, and Growth utilized a fun, postmodern take on that saying to illustrate the method in which Bburke internalizes what he reads. He is a non-traditional learner, and he reads in unconventional ways. Have I mentioned how fun this novel is yet? It’s very fun.

Growth actively comments on itself throughout. This is a living breathing thing. The narrator calls out obvious macguffins in the plot and marks future ones as such, the legitimacy of thin characters is called into question, and Bburke himself occasionally seems right on the cusp of realizing that he might exist only as a character in a novel. I’m a sucker for anything that continues in-line with that terrific Cervantes tradition.

The way that Dickie T and S.A.’s dialogue was handled is so perfect. They read like two halves of the same theoretical person, and their banter felt straight out of a DeLillo or DFW novel. Since they are the two characters who are readers, it seems most likely that S.A and Dickie T are familiar with those writers, wish they existed in their novels, and choose to speak as if they do. So much is revealed about them just through the form of their banter. Basically, they’ve read some books, and they think oh so highly of themselves for it. Writing their dialogue, and only their dialogue in this style shows fantastic restraint on Smith’s part. The form itself served the characters and story.

I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to the classics, but I could see Growth rewarding those who are. I wouldn’t say being well-read is a prerequisite for enjoying it, but I think there’s another layer of entertainment available to those who are. I think this works on many different levels for many different readers. Be forewarned though, it will instill in you a desire to revisit some classics, or maybe even approach them for the first time. There are definitely a few more books on my TBR because of this one.

I don’t want to say any more or comment on any vital story points, because I think this is probably best experienced with unspoiled eyes. Check it out, it’s fantastic.

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