Josh Malerman, frontman for the band The High Strung and writer of novels like Bird Box, Unbury Carol, and Black Mad Wheel, is killing it with his work lately. I was hooked from book one, intrigued by the gorgeous cover of Bird Box when I saw it on shelves in 2014. I followed him down his weird rabbit hole as he experimented with different styles of prose and world-building to create an eccentric and bold image of himself with readers. Malerman is looking to shake things up and I’m having it, every bit. Hell, Bird Box even got a pretty decent adaptation on Netflix!
With Inspection, his latest novel, he’s exploring binary gender politics and the nature of ambition. He’s swinging for the fences and he doesn’t perfectly nail it, but for the most part, it all hits home. I urge you not to read the synopsis available on the dust jacket and online purveyors, as it reveals things that are kind of surprises and I think it took away from a couple of things as I was reading through scenes. Just throwing that out there.
Inspection concerns a group of boys being raised in a tower known as “The Turret.” They’re known as “The Alphabet Boys” due to their names being a single letter. Our protagonist, J, begins to question his environment. These boys go through inspections each day to ensure their health and mindset, but he’s starting to wonder if there isn’t more going on with the staff and their leader, D.A.D., and the entirety of his life. Oh, and the staff and children are all males. No women in their lives and the boys don’t know what a woman is.
None of this is particularly subtle, but that setup takes us through a ride that I honestly enjoyed. Like all Malerman projects, his ambition can occasionally exceed his grasp but you’re going to love every minute of it and it’ll be hard to walk away confused. Compare this to his last novel, Unbury Carol, and you’ll be comparing a strange and weird otherworld to a world that exists within reality and yet…doesn’t. His work feels like something just adjacent to the life that we know and yet relatable. This anomalous feeling creates something unsettling, yet the ease of the prose delivers the message and story in a way that’s not just palatable – it’s delicious.
I will call out one thing that I’d consider a flaw – the full binary heteronormative of the characters. Everything in this book revolves around curiosity about the opposite sex. We’ve accepted in modern society that human sexuality is a bit more fluid than that, and it would have been nice to see Malerman acknowledge that with some of his characters. Could have made for an interesting thread. Just a thought, it doesn’t derail the novel but it feels like an oversight.
Bottom line, though, is that Malerman has delivered another wonderfully entertaining novel that explores human interaction in yet another way we haven’t seen before. He’s tackled desperation, survival instinct, obsession, and attraction, but this is the first time he’s done something with plain old human wiring, the needs of an adolescent, and he does a tasteful job with it (the novel is about 12-year-olds, a dangerous ledge to walk if you don’t know what you’re doing). I can’t wait for his next offering, and I’m psyched that he’s cranking out such quality material so regularly.