Lavie Tidhar’s The Escapement (2021)is a fantastic and fantastical fever dream of a novel, a Weird Western via Lewis Carroll, Gilgamesh if had been translated and illustrated by Norton Juster and scored by Ennio Morricone, The Searchers if it had starred Buster Keaton, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had it been directed by David Lynch from a screenplay co-written by Steven King, Raymond Carver, and Italo Calvino and storyboarded by Salvador Dali. It’s a wondrous riot of imagination that veers back and forth from horrific to heartbreaking to laugh-out-loud funny to macabre to absurdist. Defying genre, defying categorization, even perhaps defying plot, Tidhar has crafted a baroque hallucinatory tale you have to let wash over you as much as you read it. Will it be to everyone’s taste? Absolutely not. But those who find it enough to their liking to continue will revel in its many rewards.
Somewhere in a harshly realistic world, a man (referenced only as “the man”) helplessly attends his despairingly ill son in the hospital where machines “beep and chirp” to no avail. Meanwhile, in The Escapement — a maniacal Wild West populated by clowns, immense stone giants, mimes, slave mines, the ghost of John Wayne Gacy, and others — a man known only as The Stranger quests for the Ur-shanabi, the Plant of Heartbeat, a mythical flower said to be able to cure anything, even time. The worlds can each at times be seen, mistily, blurrily, one from the other in ghostly fashion, and people travel back and forth at times, but as to which, if either, is the “real one” even the Stranger is unsure, wondering “do we dream that other world or does it dream us?” And he wonders it again as he and the Man fade in and out of each other’s moments:
He did not know if the Escapement were real, for what was real? The world was filled with impossible things, like the joyful laugh of a child. He closed his eyes. Behind them were only white walls, an antiseptic smell, the hum of machines. A doctor whispered something … When he opened his yes, the Kid was there.
The more realistic thread involving the man and his son, as noted above, reminded me of nothing so much as a Raymond Carver story in style and tone, the formation of the sentences, the language. That sense of despair, of always being on the edge. Tidhar captured me from the very opening:
The Boy was very still in the small white bed. The man held the book and he tried to keep reading from it, but his voice wouldn’t work … The man thought of a day in spring, not that long ago, when he’d first taken the boy to see the circus. They’d walked hand in hand through the Midway … saw the clowns. He’d bought the boy a balloon and gave it to him to hold, but the boy let it go and the balloon floated far high into the sky, until it vanished. The boy had burst into tears and the man picked him up and held him close … and after but a moment the boy smiled and held the man’s face in hands and looked at him with such trust and love that would have broken the man’s heart had he let it. Dad, he said. Dad.
Sorrowful, bittersweet, filled with moments of aching pain but also aching beauty, the realistic section alone is worth the price of admission.
Intermingled with it, and taking up the lion’s share of The Escapement, the scenes involving the Stranger have a number of elements that act as parallels between stories beyond the two men blurring one into the other. The Stranger finds himself in a Waiting Room in a town that has the feel of the Lotus-Eater tale from The Odyssey. Later there is a great hole in the world. And everywhere there are clocks, broken, distorted, ticking but never tocking, time always marked, time feeling frozen, never enough time, time moving glacially, agonizingly slow.
The Stranger’s section is much more episodic, almost at times a series of short stories and digressive stories within stories. Clowns are scalped and enslaved, trains are robbed, a war beyond human comprehension wages seemingly forever with humans as pawns moved across the board and sometimes taken over, possessed, robbed of any agency and turned into “sock puppets.” The Stranger meets and travels for a time with a female bounty hunter, meets and travels for a longer time with a young man called The Kid, on his own quest to find and kill The Conjurer (one of those digressive stories we get later in the novel). Tidhar employs the classic Western moments in language, plot, and imagery, as in the scene, easily recognizable from any Western film:
They had all moved to the window, guns drawn, and the Stranger peered out onto Main Street. He saw the shops were rapidly closing … the people outside were running for shelter, and in mere moments the street was deserted. Behind them, he heard the owner of the bar loudly pump a shotgun.
While the Western is the foundational homage here, Tidhar stocks the novel (mostly the Stranger’s section) with a host of allusions: to Narnia, to Oz, to silent comedies, to famous clowns, the Tarot deck, folktales and fables, Gilgamesh as mentioned, Shelley, Greek mythology, some of which he notes as influences in an afterword. Half the fun is recognizing these breadcrumbs. But that’s not the only fun. There’s a surprising amount of humor in a book filled with death and violence, maimings and war, massacres and horrific transformations. Though, admittedly, some of the humor is itself attached to violence, as in a wonderful scene involving an attack by mimes:
They fired methodically at the mimes climbing the walls. The mimes mimed getting hurt. The mimes fell, hitting invisible obstacles … The Kid was out of bullets and … stabbed the creature in the neck … “Got something to say?” the Kid screamed.
As you can see, The Escapement is seriously warped, seriously weird, and so as I said in the intro, it won’t be for everyone. But everyone should at least start it. As for me, I can tell you already it’s going on my best of the year list, as have several earlier Tidhar novels. In fact, this one makes Tidhar Five for Five — it’s the fifth book by him I’ve given five stars to. I may have to start a new rating system for his next one…