Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
Author: Jennifer Marie Brissett
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Weightless Books
Elysium is a challenging book to describe. Imagine combining the alternate-reality concept of The Matrix with the gender-switching concept of Orlando and the retelling-Roman-history aspect of Julian Comstock, and you’re nearly there.
Adrian and Adrianne are the same person. So are Antoine and Antoinette. And so are Hector and Helen. These identities swirl around each other, interacting in several vignettes across the story of Elysium. In one vignette, Adrian and Antoine are lovers, and Hector becomes Adrian’s safe haven as Antoine slowly dies. In another, Antoine is a solider coming home from war, desperate to rescue his brother Adrian from a mental hospital, and Hector (who in this instance is trans and identifies as Helen) is Adrian’s fellow patient along for the ride as the city crumbles around them.
In a third vignette, Adrienne is a Vestal virgin in a far-future setting, and Antoine is the soldier she’s secretly willing to break her vows for. In yet another vignette, Adrianne is the last survivor of a ruined, foggy world who develops wings after constant exposure to airborne alien dust.
Brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, lovers. What separates each vignette, each set of relationships, are weird interstices of code like this:
>> createdoc check_for_daemon.fi
# check_daemon.fi — check if daemon process
# is running in the background
ps -ef | grep -v grep | grep Gauns
# if not found – equals to 1
if [ $? -eq 0 ]
then echo “Found daemon process…”
>> execute check_for_daemon
Every time such a snippet of code appears, the story resets. But as the book progresses, the vignettes become darker. In one vignette, Antoine, Hector, and Adrian watch alien ships crash into the buildings overhead, destroying several towers and coating the area in dust.
In another, Adrian loses Antoinette in childbirth; he distracts himself from grief by creating a city for the human survivors driven underground by the alien dust in the air. Ultimately, Adrian develops a database to store humanity’s knowledge and encodes it into the atmosphere, so that their presence can never truly be wiped out from Earth’s history after the alien invasion and genocide. The final software update to the (both literal and figurative) cloud is a memorial to Antoinette.
Adrian(ne) is almost always the survivor. Antoine(tte) almost always dies or gets wounded. And Elysium — the cloud, the atmospheric database, the afterlife — is his/her final resting place.
I won’t reveal the story’s conclusion, but I will say this: Elysium is a slow burn. It’s a book that requires patience, focus, and curiosity to enjoy — it’s not a quick, cursory read. (In fact, at one point when I was reading this, my husband looked over my shoulder and was convinced that my eReader was malfunctioning because I was on a page full of code.)
I appreciate Brissett’s sense of purpose and deliberation. This book is a Jenga tower, full of interlocking and interweaving blocks, threatening to teeter and fall due to its sheer ambition. However, at several points of Elysium, the prose was flat-out boring, with little variety in sentence structure or length. For example:
Then Adrian saw it. He turned to his brother. Antoine had his finger to his lips to tell him to hush. It moved like an animal. It had a strange stride. Adrian had to stare for a long time to accept what he was seeing. It stood on two legs and walked like a man. But its head was not a man’s. At first it seemed like a hat. Adrian squinted. The darkness was thick and the dust was still falling, so he felt like he may have been mistaken, but the creature seemed to have antlers.
Was this an intentional choice on Brissett’s part? I believe so, because there are other sections where the prose is much more poetic and varied. I noticed that the flat prose occurs only in vignettes where the “wrongness” of the world is further exposed.
I think Brissett is using this style to heighten the reader’s sense of dislocation because such a gambit is in keeping with the other complexities of the plot. However, it’s a risky move. The periodically flat prose, combined with the slow revelation of the story’s truth, creates a reading experience that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
I’m still puzzling out all of the layers within Elysium. There’s so much else that I haven’t touched on here, like the fact that the characters are all black or hispanic and that the book has strong afrofuturistic elements. Or the fact that the inspiration for the story of Adrian(ne) and Antoine(tte) is the real-life relationship between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his teenaged lover Antinous. I also haven’t discussed how Adrianne takes control at the end of the narrative and how her actions echo contemporary discourse around colonization and cultural appropriation.
I’ll leave you to discover those things yourself, because seeing how the puzzle pieces of the story fit together is one of Elysium‘s chief pleasures.