J.M. McDermott’s Maze is about a maze. Or possibly the maze: An unending series of stone halls and corridors which lurks in our primordial past, populated by monstrous creatures, loops and fragments of non-linear time, and a ragged band of humans who somehow got stranded there. The maze is never revealed to have any moral or mechanical logic; it just is, and the people who live there just do. Maze operates as a disjointed series of narratives about the people who have fallen into the maze. There are glimpses of their past worlds (a spaceship, medieval France, dystopian Texas), but the bulk of the novel is about the gritty, ugly process of surviving in an inhospitable place. It’s surreal, scattered, gruesome, and sometimes excellent.
Many books with ambitions towards literary surrealism leave me floating in a haze of meaningless strangeness — oh look, I think, I bet another unsettling and distantly symbolic Event is about to happen. And, occasionally, Maze floundered in that muddy territory. There are horrible insect-like creatures with infants’ heads. There’s a plant rooted in a woman’s belly growing tiny monster-fetuses. There’s a journey down a sewer pipe covered in maggots. It’s a kind of New Weird horror that must be used sparingly to retain its power, because the strangeness quickly piles up into an amorphous ball of non-surprise. In Maze, it could become the glum certainty that whatever that new creature is, it’s probably going to kill you.
It’s the subtler pieces of McDermott’s writing that are more successful. Beneath the everyday horrors of trolls and minotaurs, the real horror of the maze is in the unknown — the monsters they haven’t seen, or barely understand. At its best moments, it reminded me of the perfectly-orchestrated terror in Danielewski’s House of Leaves. There’s a labyrinth at the heart of House of Leaves, too, except that it lives inside a perfectly normal suburban home. At one point a little girl asks her father to play a game with her called “always.” Later, it’s suggested that the word “always” is very much like “hallways,” isn’t it? And you realize the little girl has been playing light-heartedly in the halls of the maze. McDermott wrote a similar scene: An eerie ghost girl named Jenny is living in a man’s apartment. Only later does someone else pronounce her name more correctly: djinni. And the reader is suddenly very afraid of Jenny. It’s a chilling piece of word-craft built on the slippage between the written word and the thing said aloud.
There are moments, too, of compelling characterization. One of the narrators was a scientist in her pre-Maze life, and her efforts to get her daughter to understand about things like bacteria and infection are heartbreakingly futile. Her daughter eventually became my favorite character, Julie Station, an intelligent and angry outcast. The two women bookend the story and render the sometimes-brutal masculinity of other characters more palatable.
In some senses, Maze is a decline story. Narratives about the decay of civilization always reveal much more about their era than they do about the nature of mankind. Lord of the Flies told us more about a particular moment of English disillusionment, post-war and post-empire, than the savage natures of pre-teen boys. A hundred years earlier, Ballantyne told the same story about British boys stranded on an island, but his story was about British-ness, moral character, and the innate ability of young English boys to keep a stiff upper lip.
McDermott’s stranded humans become very much like a huddled tribe of Homo sapiens on the outskirts of the world, with predatory monsters and poison fruits and a few Homo heidelbergensis lurking around every corner. Out of this primordial ooze, McDermott imagines a return to ancient hunter-gatherer gender relations: women stay behind the barricades and weave nets, while men wander around the maze with clubs. It’s not an illogical or impossible scenario (although the strict “man the hunter” brand of anthropological thinking has been severely eroded over time). But Maze has a feeling of inevitability and determinism to it. There are mutinous characters who resist their assigned roles (like Julie Station), but the hierarchy itself was an inexorable reality.
“There is only one path here,” McDermott tells us, “built upon the lie of all mazes — that there are many paths to choose.” But does our only path honestly lead there? Without my refrigerator and state-granted civil rights, would I immediately descend to net-weaving and bread-baking? I have always preferred to believe differently.
But for those who are less allergic to the biological determinism of gender — and who don’t mind the unexplained and slightly gruesome — Maze is a worthwhile read. It’s gracefully written, and concerned simultaneously with the murkiest, oldest fears of the human psyche, and the fantastic at its most deadly.