Friday, December 10, 2021

"Branches" by Adam Peter Johnson--Fiction Review

Alright, Obscurists, we’re off to hunt for a better reality than this one in today’s book, “Branches” by Adam Peter Johnson. It’s a thoughtful Sci-Fi that involves parallel universes.

Adam Peter Johnson

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

So this novel perfectly distilled a lot of my past, present, and future fears—I know, an odd thing to come out of the gate with on “loves,” but I’m an odd guy. Where I’m going with this is; when the protagonist goes through his fears about the world, I related to him. I have those fears about society, the climate, politics, conspiracy theorists, and the anti-science magical thinker crowd.

For me, “Branches” worked like a horror story, and I love horror. From the jump, the whole atmosphere of the book is a nightmare. Its parallel universe plot is a kind of twisted “Groundhog Day" set up of a story, but the variables are constantly changing, so it’s not like the protagonist can just memorize things. I like how out of control he feels with this “power” to slip between realities and the sense of bewilderment that comes with it.

There is an obvious political leaning in this book, but I’d argue most if not all great Sci-Fi examined political questions all the way back to the founding of the genre. Also, I’m a looney liberal lefty who harbors radical beliefs that all human life has value, and no one should have to suffer from illness or die on the altar of economics. Not for any reason—not war—not Mark Zuckerberg’s superyacht named “Ulysses,” no reason at all. Quick aside, while Ulysses S. Grant is still my favorite president, I still can’t forgive Virgil for doing my boy Odysseus dirty and the Romans in general for renaming him, Ulysses. So, in any case, you can probably divine the political bent of this novel from my charmingly out-of-touch rambling.

What I don’t love about this book:

It wasn’t until after I put my kindle down and thought about what I wanted to say in this review did it occur to me, “wait a minute, what was the main character’s name again? Did I just read a whole novel and miss that it was an unnamed protagonist the whole time?” I quickly scanned a couple Goodreads reviews, and yeah, it looks like. I don’t hate this effect per se. I just don’t know how to feel about it, which it occurs to me maybe that was intentional—and god, I hope it wasn’t on something like page twenty where we find out his name was John Maincharacterton or something, and I’m just stupid. I did quickly rescan through the book and couldn’t find anything.

I think it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know the protagonist’s name because I was laser-focused on the unnamed primary antagonist only referred to as HIM. This seems to me, after the fact, excellent parallelism between the two characters, and it’s done in a cool subtle way. Again, assuming the protagonist isn’t named John Maincharacterton, and I’m way off base. Anyway, why this bit is in what I don’t love is because there’s just enough plausible deniability early on and in the middle of the story that HIM isn’t necessarily exactly who you think he is, which is interesting and subtle. But there is a moment, late in the story, where sadly, the subtlety soufflĂ© takes a tumble and splats on the floor. Then it’s pretty inescapable who HIM is.

When Johnson transitions from scene to scene, there is also this thing that makes this already confusing story more confusing, but not in the good kind of way. I get slipping through parallel dimensions should be confusing, and it’s rightly done as such. But for instance, there was also a moment when the protagonist suddenly ended up out in the yard, and I was still mentally in the breakfast nook, with his wife—or one version of her at least. And I wasn’t sure if this was a slip between realities or not. There are a lot of moments like that. We’re here, and then we’re there, and then sometimes the protagonist himself literally says, oh well, I guess I should talk about this thing that happened earlier, or things won’t make sense. That I really didn’t like. Yes, of course, you should talk about the thing that makes the next thing make sense—stop skipping around, you nameless prick!

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story is a first-person account, and we start it with our protagonist visiting his father. Also, visiting grandpa is the protagonist’s wife, Meredith, and his son, Nolan. The protagonist is experiencing quite an existential crisis after the last election where HE was elected. Beyond the realms of angst, it quickly becomes apparent that the protagonist has major medical and financial problems, too. He apparently suffers from seizures and was recently fired from his job.

Soon, at the hospital, the protagonist is ushered into a tiny conference room where he is told his seizures result from a brain parasite. But not just your regular run-of-the-mill brain parasite but a quantum parasite from a parallel universe—in fact, the protagonist, thanks to his parasite, is also from a parallel universe. He’s drifting with it. But luckily, there is a cure. A series of pills that will weaken and ultimately kill the parasite. As it weakens, he will start drifting back toward his original reality. The catch is he has to take the whole treatment and go back to his original reality, no matter where that is, or end up back in this reality before the treatment and owe the company $50,000, which he certainly doesn’t have. He ends up going for the full and free trial.

Meanwhile, things are just generally not going well. President HIM is an authoritarian who seized power instead of procuring it through the democratic process, and people—radicals they’re dubbed—are being rounded up all around the protagonist wherever he goes. It’s clear there is a significant racial element to the whole sordid business. Our hero struggles with trying to be a hero, several times, to stand up and take a side as his dead mother insisted he always should. But for the most part, early on, he’s more concerned with his disintegrating marriage and raising his young son, who has health issues, in an increasingly hostile world.

Right after the visit to the hospital, the protagonist’s slips into alternate realities are the driving force behind the plot. In some realities, his relationship with Meredith is better, and in some, she’s already divorced him. Sometimes, the protagonist hasn’t lost his job in some realities. His relationship with his young son seems to be fairly consistent all the way through, even when the world’s violence ebbs and flows. 

In some realities, HIM hasn’t won the election, ever, and isn’t president. At first, the protagonist is elated and assumes all of his problems will now evaporate, but of course, they don’t. It becomes clear to the protagonist that other versions of himself are also taking the treatment for the parasite. While they can’t inhabit the same reality, they do cross paths regularly, typically leaving wreckage in one form or another for the others to clean up. The protagonist tries to seek answers from the people who gave him the pills but discovers that in nearly every reality, they are just actors, playing a part in giving him the pills. The real makers of the drugs hide out of sight and reach on purpose.

Like in “Groundhog Day,” the protagonist becomes obsessed with the idea of saving a man’s life who dies in every timeline. He’s a black man who owns a music shop whose ultimate fate is to be unjustly profiled by the police and murdered in his own shop. Typically this is carried out by one specific racist cop, but there are others too. No matter what the protagonist does, he never can seem to save the music store owner in any universe.

Toward the end, with the world better, but his marriage to Meredith still teetering in every other universe—the protagonist has to face that he’d been using HIM as an excuse—for everything. And while an authoritarian president and would-be dictator is no small problem, the problems in the protagonist’s life really all flow from him. He hadn’t been the same after his mother had died, and he never properly got to say goodbye to her when he had the chance.

The pills, however, let him drift far enough to a reality where she never died; if it’s his original timeline, it isn’t specified. Things seem to be great with Meredith. They’re visiting the protagonist’s parents, who are alive and well, and he is reunited with his mother, who he adores. But then the final gut punch—in this timeline, the protagonist’s son, Nolan, the only positive constant in all the other universes, was never born. The story concludes with him throwing away his green pill, which would have let him stay in the good universe, where there is no authoritarian president, where his mother was alive, where his marriage was good—all because his son isn’t there.


Like I said in my synopsis, this novel is relayed in the first person, which I always find to be a bold choice. Bold because novels like this become unending slogs when they don’t work because the reader is tied to a poor protagonist. But when they do work, such as in the case of this book, a first-person perspective is an incredibly intimate character study of the narrating character. 

At first, Johnson’s protagonist is a tad selfish and incredibly self-absorbed but relatable. As the madcap plot unfolds around him, he grows in moral character and self-discovery, which is engaging to read. I especially liked the beat that his life is the way it is for just as many internal reasons as external—which isn’t to discount the external forces. A lunatic in the white house can clearly do a lot of damage over just four years.

Johnson doesn’t pull any emotional punches either in this book. It ends rather tragically, after all, and the fact that the protagonist can’t stop the shooting in the music store is devastating. There is a lot this book has going for it, more so than just the science fiction plot in terms of symbolism, patterns, and parallelism. How the story seems to mirror at the beginning and end, how the protagonist and the supposed antagonist dovetail, and I could go on. It makes for a subtle and thoughtful experience with a clear Donald Trump—sized hole in it like when Wile E. Coyote would run through a wall. 

Parting thoughts:

Typically, I think it’s a losing prospect to try and read too much into the character or life experience of an author in their work. Fiction is ultimately about fundamentally untrue people, places, things, and events—presented as they are to try and get at the greater truth of what speaks to us human beings.

But I also believe that every writer—or artist in general—is required to pour something of themselves into their creations. It might only be a little, just to give them that spark, but the process is mandatory. Or at least that is my theory anyway. For a story to live and breathe—to have a soul (and I say that referring to it as a vital quality, not a spiritual one), it requires that from its creator. Otherwise, it’s lifeless—flat.

“Branches” is often raw and passionate, which causes me to wonder how much did Johnson pour of himself into his protagonist?

Like with a lot of this book, the answer from the book alone is ambiguous, reflecting reality itself. Often the world is incomprehensible. I think that’s what I liked the most about this experience. Since 2016 I have felt—many—times like we are all living in a bonkers alternate reality. So this book really spoke to my experience of that feeling.

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