Sea of Hooks (McPherson & Co) was nominated by Barbara Roether, author of This Earth You’ll Come Back To. In her review of Hill’s unusual novel, Roether writes,
There is a paradox that floats through the Sea of Hooks, which is that the experience of reading it is almost the opposite of how it is written. That is to say, while the story is told in its short collage-like segments, their effect is an almost seamless classical narrative. The way sections move from multiple perspectives, dreamtime, real-time, then meld together with such cohesive and penetrating storytelling, is a testament to the author’s insightful eye for detail and character.
We can say that Sea of Hooks is a long narrative prose poem, which may be the essence of what it is to be a literary fiction novel.
A strong narrative line does run through the work, but not in any conventional sense. The story is about a gifted child, Christopher, with borderline Asperger’s-like tendencies, who obsessively collects and orders random bits of refuse, which he calls “messengers.” The drama hangs upon the question of whether or not the boy will be able to communicate his experiences and will be accepted for who he is. The pastiche form of the novel also strives to do the same. It would seem to be a paradox, as Roether observes, that from out of a chaotic collection of random bits of information an underlying order can emerge. And this is precisely what happens on several different levels of this extraordinary work.
Christopher’s neurotic mother, Evelyn, keeps house like a devoted museum curator, with an appreciation for beauty and perfection that makes Christopher afraid to reveal his brokenness. His father, Westy, drinks too much and is emotionally absent. Such circumstances leave the boy vulnerable. Protecting his mother’s fragile and “combustible” emotional state, the twelve-year-old Christopher hides the fact that he is being raped by his tutor. The abuse scenes are painful to read, graphically described but mercifully short. Far worse than the rape is how Christopher imagines it later, seeing sex in terms of a horrifically brutal public execution. Hill doesn’t dwell on these terrible dark events, which are but the backing to the mirror of the boy’s life. Hill strives to imagine a way in which someone can make sense of a life that is thus so shattered.
Form fitting the theme, the novel is composed of bits and pieces of memories and moments, labeled thematically, and although a number of events and thoughts are related in more or less chronological order, interspersed among them are foreshadowings of future significant events that change the meaning of the memories.
The past is formed out of outcomes now at hand—in the angle of the glance from where you stand.
In some ways, the fractured form reflects Christopher’s state of mind, but in other ways, it reflects the “architecture of memory” itself, composed of thematically related moments and meditations. (Another strange and lovely entrant this year worth noting, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year, takes a similar form of an index, a life disassembled and reassembled and labeled.) The reader does not miss the connections between events separated in time or need the usual guideposts such as dates or locations. These relationships are implied clearly enough. What Hill has included in his novel is all the writerly moments that readers remember, and he’s left everything else out. The first third of the novel, recording the earliest years, is reminiscent of Stephen Hero, the (in some ways) aesthetically superior draft that became James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Sea of Hooks feels like a draft of a more seamlessly connected narrative. The draft form feels closer to experience and to memory.
Hill is a widely published poet; this is his first novel. The narrative serves as an animating context for better understanding and appreciating the novel’s poetry that might have seemed esoteric without the biography to frame it. To give an example, in one of the many descriptions of Christopher’s “messengers,” the imagery reverberates in previous scenes in which, as a very young child, Christopher chips a favorite cup and his mother promptly throws it away, and although he looks thoroughly through the garbage he does not find it. Compound this early experience with his realization that he is damaged and that his mind speaks in a language that doesn’t make sense to others. His messengers are
discarded because of rust, sharp edges, filth; messengers discarded because of intimate human use; discarded messengers discarded because they were crushed, crumpled, soiled; messengers discarded because of fire, because of hard use, because they were used up, because they had been replaced with other things that were fresh and capable of bearing the thoughtless utility of the world—things capable of shining and being blank, of being unbroken, capable of containing and holding and carrying, even while being expendable, disposable, discardable at will, at whim, at first crease or crack—things clinging to their usefulness, clinging to the closed hands of their users—so as not to be thrown down and trashed, trod upon and unheard, overlooked and made invisible—so as not to have their speech taken not for speech but for refuse, background noise, interference, distraction, curled smoke, cracked light, thin air.
After suffering the abuse by his tutor, Christopher’s fragile sanity is shattered, but the reader does not recoil from him as people often do from those who are not well. I doubt a character has been constructed in fiction who so deserves our sympathy as does Hill’s Christopher. Hill enables us to sympathetically comprehend all his characters’ drives—those of Evelyn, Westy, Christopher’s friends—showing that “if you looked carefully, you could discern, in the irregularities of people’s lives, the presence of things that must be there outside of view; the influences pulling on them—hungers, expectations, memories, loss…” Hill provides access to the conscious and subconscious parts of other people’s psyches, and this a very important role, if not the most important role, of a novel.
In the end, Christopher finds a way to live an authentic existence, one that is not just “cobbled” together for appearance’s sake but is remade out of the ashes of his past. Describing a person trying to make meaning, Hill beautifully describes the task of the poet-novelist reconstituting a life:
You are trying to go home in your speaking, in the wagon of spells, in the cart heaped with straw, pulled by the great horses of language and longing.
Sea of Hooks is a novel you will want to read many times and from which much wisdom may be gleaned.
-V. N. Alexander, editor, Dactyl Review