Inspection by Josh Malerman
Here’s how to ruin your experience with this book: Read the publisher’s blurb below, think it sounds sweet and thoughtful, and then order an audio copy that doesn’t have a book jacket containing quotes from Chuck Wendig and J.D. Barker. The publisher’s blurb goes like this:
J is a student at a school deep in a forest far away from the rest of the world. J is one of only twenty-six students, all of whom think of the school’s enigmatic founder as their father. J’s peers are the only family he has ever had. The students are being trained to be prodigies of art, science, and athletics, and their life at the school is all they know — and all they are allowed to know. But J suspects that there is something out there, beyond the pines, that the founder does not want him to see, and he’s beginning to ask questions. What is the real purpose of this place? Why can the students never leave? And what secrets is their father hiding from them? Meanwhile, on the other side of the forest, in a school very much like J’s, a girl named K is asking the same questions. J has never seen a girl, and K has never seen a boy. As K and J work to investigate the secrets of their two strange schools, they come to discover something even more mysterious: each other.
Awwww. Sounds sweet and thoughtful, right?… No.
Based on the publisher’s blurb I was expecting something quite different than I got from Josh Malerman’s Inspection (2019). The premise is fascinating — D.A.D. and M.O.M. are a married couple who think they can create geniuses by raising smart boys and girls without knowledge of the opposite sex. Thus, the two-tower set-up and the chaos that ensues after J and K realize their whole lives are lies.
But what I thought was going to be a book about the mystery, beauty, and joy of the discovery of the opposite sex, actually turned out to be a horror story, almost a slasher. Once the discovery was made, it was much less about what it meant for the kids and much more about how they would retaliate.
This revelation (that Inspection is a horror story) came at the end of the book, forcing me to re-evaluate my entire experience. Here are some thoughts I had before realizing my mistake:
- I do not believe in D.A.D. and M.O.M.’s idea and I’m disappointed in the simplistic treatment it is given here. For example, it seemingly never occurred to anybody in this story that knowledge of the opposite sex is not a prerequisite for sexual arousal, distraction, or obsession (the thing M.O.M. and D.A.D. are trying to avoid so that kids can concentrate on becoming the best scientists, inventors, etc. in the world). That’s ridiculous, yet these two apparently intelligent adults as well as all of the adult teachers and other staff have bought into it.
- The title “Inspection” comes from the daily inspections in which D.A.D. or M.O.M. looks at each naked child and asks them questions, trying to figure out if they know anything they’re not supposed to know. The “parents,” D.A.D. especially, spends an enormous amount of time wondering if the boys know something or are trying to hide something. Why don’t they just put cameras or listening devices in the kids’ rooms? There’s a reason given for this, but it doesn’t make sense in the context of everything else that these horrible adults have done to these kids in their experiment. It just works better for the plot that D.A.D. and M.O.M. not realize something’s up.
- If these adults are willing to go through this elaborate years-long unethical secret experiment that seems doomed to failure, why not just try castrating the boys instead? Or doing something to block the effects of sex hormones in both sexes? It’d be a much easier way to determine whether sexual arousal affects mental function.
- Why does it take so long for anything to happen? Most of the page count involves listening to the characters (kids and adults) repetitively excruciating over every thought they have. For every moment of action, there are minutes of internal dialogue, introspection, questioning, and second-guessing, all while everyone becomes increasingly paranoid.
Then I got to the end of the book and realized my mistake. I was taking Inspection way too seriously and totally misunderstood its purpose. This is not a story about “what if” and the blooming of sexual awakening. It’s a story about how people unravel when they try to cover up their dirty deeds and lies, and it’s a book about revenge. I realize now, in retrospect, that the extremely slow pace is meant to build up tension and suspense. (Unfortunately, I used that time to get annoyed instead of scared, so this didn’t work for me.)
Finally, at the very end of Inspection, things start moving fast (too fast, in my opinion, which I’ve just proved is worthless with respect to this book). If you don’t mind slasher horror, it’s probably quite entertaining and satisfying, though. If you decide to read Inspection, don’t make my mistake. You’ll benefit from knowing at the start that Inspection is a slasher and you’re not supposed to psychoanalyze it like I did.
The audio edition of Inspection was produced by Random House Audio and is narrated by Michael Crouch (the boy parts) and Brittany Pressley (the girl parts). Both readers gave an excellent performance.
This is a serious marketing blunder! The book will miss its target audience, and the wrong audience will be as baffled and annoyed as you were.
Yes, for the digital copies at least. If I had had a print copy in hand, I would have been prepared. The publisher’s blurb should be slightly modified to make it clear that this is a horror story.
I think for a horror story, this set-up can work just fine.
Can you explain the very end?
Hi Vickie, I have deleted the audiobook, so I don’t have it anymore and can’t check the details, but I recall that the girls have their revenge on their caretakers. Which part, specifically, do you refer to? I’ll see if I can answer. If you include a spoiler, please put an alert at the top of the comment.
********* SPOILER ALERT *********
The letter at the very end. From Barbara Burns.
I mean I guess the “shocker is that the burns reports were coming from the outside?
And who is Michael Stowe?
Ugh, Vickie. I only vaguely remember the letter and that it was creepy and suggested that maybe the same thing could happen again elsewhere (with the person named Mr Stowe perhaps), but I can’t remember the details. I’m sorry!
Thanks! I bet that’s it.