By Peyton Marshall
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux – 30th September 2014
ISBN 9780374165628 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Though having some positive qualities to it, Marshall’s debut novel of dystopia, Goodhouse, also has it’s fair share of serious problems. Set in the near-future United States, genetic sequencing and supposed correlation between certain genetic markers and disruptive, violent behavior (deviancy from acceptable societal citizenship) lands young boys into a mandatory state-run reform school. Rather than being a place of actual growth and reform, these institutions, or Good Houses, are no more than prisons, maintaining the young boys in a wild mini-society where they are threatened by fellow ‘students’, exploited by the scientists and administrators who run the program, and targeted by a radical religious group that wants to eliminate the threat their deviancy represents.
Readers are introduced to this horrific world through the eyes of a young ward who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of the system and its punishments despite his best efforts to actually reform from the person he is condemned for being. Yet he soon sees that he is perhaps no different than anyone else. This protagonist, named James Goodhouse (an assigned institutional name to replace the real name and past of which he remains unaware), is a fascinating character. As a subject of lies, deceit, and experimental treatments, James is also an unreliable narrator, making many of the events in Goodhouse difficult to discern between real or imagined.
I liked this uncertain, and at times confusing, aspect of the novel, and Marshall’s writing, the language, is evocative with a dreamlike richness in spots that lends to this strange setting and the fragile state of James’ mind. Yet, while details of the plot, what was really occurring to James could be interestingly unclear, open to interpretation, the overall trajectory of the plot was basically predictable from the set up.
While on temporary release from the Goodhouse facility for a work program out in general society, James encounters a young girl who is drawn to James and the danger, deviancy that he represents. Her pursuit of him is a cause for much of James’ getting in trouble with the program, but is also the impetus for his discovering the darker truths behind the scenes. Unfortunately this relationship doesn’t end up feeling more than a plot device and as one of the few females in the novel, this girl is rather one-dimensional, seemingly just eager for a good romp with a ‘bad boy’.
The male focus of Goodhouse is generally problematic, though there aren’t any particularly likable characters in the novel at all, and none really complex beyond James. But the male focus oddly extends to the entire set up of the novel, that these genetic markers for deviancy can only be determined for men. The idea that complex behavior could be so readily mapped is kind of absurd in itself, but for it to be specific to sex chromosomes is just ridiculous. Although the entire screwed up, corrupt nature of the Goodhouse system is hard to imagine existing, the fact that these kinds of places have existed and gotten by (forming a historical basis for this novel) shows that sometimes reality is sometimes harder to bite than fiction.
The presence of the religious zealots as a secondary theme, but driving force of the plot, in Goodhouse is the other aspect where I feel the novel disappoints. The group is shown mostly as either a frenzied mob or through individuals that seem twisted and insane. They really are extreme zealots. But in so rendering they don’t seem particularly human and it instead feeds into limited, dismissive views of any similar groups in real life.
Despite not working for me on the whole, readers interested in the themes raised in the novel may find it worthwhile and Marshall’s talent at writing in general is a strength arguing for keeping an eye out for what he writes next.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.