Coming of Age Amidst Sinister Experiments: A Review of Josh Malerman’s “Inspection”

Josh Malerman’s novel Inspection works on two levels. On the surface, it tells the story of two groups: one made up of boys and one made up of girls, who are both part of an experiment. With elements of science fiction, a subtext of mental games, and heavy doses of tension, the narrative partly behaves like a psychological thriller. However, there is much more at work under the surface. Inspection engages with complex themes: characters’ struggles to deny their instincts, the possibility of altering life’s regular progression in order to maximize intellectual development, and the effect of storytelling on human thoughts. When those elements take over, the novel fluctuates between a creepy science fiction adventure, a bloody coming-of-age story, and a horror novel. Malerman, a literary chameleon whose previous novels include the post-apocalyptic-novel-turned-cultural-phenomenon Birdbox, the bizarre and dreamlike Western Unbury Carol, and the strange and haunting Black Mad Wheel, offers here his best effort yet and cements himself as one of the most versatile voices in contemporary dark literature. 

J is a young student whose life revolves around studying. Neither he nor the other twenty-five students at their boys-only school hidden deep in a forest have ever had contact with the rest of the world. In fact, they ignore the outside world’s existence. The school and its staff, known as the Parenthood, are the only thing the kids know. The school’s founder and leader, a man named Richard who everyone knows as D.A.D, is convinced isolation will mold the children into intellectual prodigies in science and art. Unfortunately, J isn’t as happy as some of the other boys. He suspects there is more to life, more than what they are being shown. He believes there is something out there D.A.D wants to keep them from seeing, and this idea begins to shape everything he does and thinks, filling his head with unanswered questions. Why are they all in the same place all the time? What lies beyond the confines of the yard? Is that another building in the distance? Is someone else out there? Then they receive a book — a book containing strange beings different from the boys, who make J think about strange new things. While J ponders big questions, a girl named K goes through a similar process in a school just like J’s on the other side of the forest. K lives surrounded only by females, and her school’s leader is obsessed with making the girls brilliant academics. Unfortunately for the leaders of both schools, intellectual curiosity leads to action, and both K and J will look for answers in a way that eventually brings them together. 

Inspection is a novel about exercising absolute control, eliminating human instincts, and suppressing natural development in favor of a solely academic life. The schools’ founders want to eradicate the opposite sex from the lives of each group so that intellectual activities can flourish uninterrupted. They feel humans spend too much time and effort trying to get the attention of the opposite sex, pursuing emotional and physical relationships. Their main goal is to remove this element from day one; they believe that growing up in a new, single-sex artificial reality will lead to perfect focus. However, the Parenthood fails to take into account instincts, hormonal changes, and natural curiosity. When the writer who produces all the novels distributed by the Parenthood creates a book with women in it, his rebellious act turns into the beginning of the end. Malerman, unlike Richard, is aware of the correlation between mental and physical development, and he makes sure readers keep it in mind (“Is it a coincidence that a man’s worldview solidifies as he grows hair under his arms? As he discovers what his body is for?”). 

Malerman fully engages with the connection between the body and mind. His writing emphasizes ideas and focuses on internal turmoil but does so while constantly reminding readers that physicality is inescapable. At the core of Inspection lies the idea that body and mind cannot develop independently from each other, as they are bound by an “unseen thread that forces the well-being of one to be entirely dependent upon the other.”  Science fiction has long been obsessed with the interstitial space between psychology and physiology, the place where our thoughts affect our body and vice versa. Malerman jumps into this space headfirst and explores the possibilities of hormonal changes igniting different types of curiosity, especially when members of both sexes are raised without knowledge of their counterparts. They inhabit separate worlds, but they have something deep, something strange and ancient, that makes them miss the other even if they don’t know exactly what it is they’re missing. 

While the ideas are expansive, the setting and atmosphere of Inspection are oppressive. Action takes place mostly inside the microcosm of the two school buildings and the few miles of woods that separate them. The rooms are small and shared. Staff members are always watching. There are times set for every activity, and every action is tightly controlled. This predictability doesn’t seem awful at first, but that feeling changes once the boys start to doubt the intentions of their caretakers. Furthermore, the boys are subjected to intrusive daily inspections during which they stand naked in front of staff members who inspect them from head to toe. The confined spaces and continuous scrutiny affect the boys’ conversations, thoughts, and actions, amplifying their fears and insecurities, causing paranoia and self-doubt. The boys develop the sense that staff, especially D.A.D, can look into their heads, that they know what the boys are thinking and trying to hide. The Parenthood’s constant watch establishes them as an omniscient presence, a kind of hegemonic power that is protector and punisher, nurturer and spy, parent and ruthless executioner. In addition to daily inspections, the leaders have created a series of diseases to force the youngsters to reveal all their secrets. There are also extreme punishments for nonconforming children: if the Parenthood thinks a boy is spoiled, that boy goes to The Corner and disappears forever. These elements work well within the context of a horror story, but Malerman goes further, mixing them with philosophy to illustrate the significance of what the Parenthood is doing; hiding the existence of women from the boys in an attempt to keep them from wasting time pursuing a partner. This approach uncovers flaws in the system as the reader goes along: you can’t stop psychological development, questioning things is part of human nature, and personality changes brought on by puberty are inescapable. In other words, Richard tries to wage a battle against nature in the name of intellect, but nature, as always, finds a way to persevere, to overcome limitations and outgrow any space it’s crammed into. Richard’s failure to understand this elevates Malerman’s last few pages into one of the most satisfyingly chaotic endings in contemporary horror fiction.  

The level of tension that permeates the narrative serves as one of its greatest strengths. The Parenthood fears failure and the children live in constant fear of being declared spoiled and getting sent to The Corner. Their fears clash against each other. Their wishes pull them apart despite the years of work that have brought them together. J realizes that the people he has trusted in his whole life are lying to him. Simultaneously, Richard becomes aware of the “recent whispers among the boys,” their new fears, their “attempts at trying to understand the purpose of the Parenthood.” This makes him nervous. He knew the time for changes and growth would come, but he was confident in the degree to which he thought he had managed to subdue instinct and curiosity. He expected a small degree of change in the boys’ philosophies and “expected some degree of tumult and even mutiny along the way,” but the magnitude of the changes and the consequences send him spiraling into a state of despair that leads him to drinking. Despite the creeping realizations, he refuses to give up, to accept what’s coming. For Richard, his experiment must continue at all costs, and he convinces himself the situation will pass. They have trained the boys to share everything, so nothing too bad can happen. For Richard, truth is something that can be ignored: “For was there really a possibility of a boy being spoiled so long as the Parenthood stood guard over the grounds?” 

The interactions between the main characters also provide compelling themes and keep the narrative engaging throughout. Richard and J serve as opposites. Where one led a life of crime and employed other ex-criminals to help run his experiment, the other has only known studies and camaraderie. One is an adult who has experienced the world and the other is a kid who has never seen a girl or a woman in his life, and hasn’t been beyond the trees at the far end of the yard. Despite these differences, they share the spotlight well. Perhaps most importantly, one is obstinate, stuck in his ways, while the other embodies adaptability, overcoming obstacles by changing. Richard wants what he thinks is best for the kids (“You are blameless. Your perspective is as pure as that of a caveman, who knows nothing beyond his daily tasks, but your intellect surpasses my own”), but he ignores too many realities in his quest for unspoiled intellectual development. On the other hand, J is willing to change, eager to learn, and extremely curious. Their matchup makes for truly engaging reading. 

Halfway through the novel, the girls make their appearance. In many ways the two groups are similar, but some crucial differences make an impact. The girls act more mature, slightly more curious. Of the girls, K is the standout: she embodies brilliance, an artistic prodigy. The founder of her school, more intelligent than Richard, sees the correlation between intelligence and inquisitiveness and understands that some things are part of us in such profound ways that eliminating them is not a feasible option. She is aware of how “oddly in touch” K is with the human condition. K is different from the other girls, more in tune with her surroundings, more intelligent, more observant, more dangerously curious. The founder is both in awe of her and worried about the things she sees in K. The girl demonstrates knowledge beyond what she’s been taught and an innate understanding of how things work. For the founder, she is a treasure and a threat, a constant reminder to keep things in check and worry about where the girls’ thoughts stem from. The founder constantly reminds herself the founders have “to ask ourselves (and constantly at that): Who taught her these things?”

Ultimately, Inspection succeeds because Malerman never allows any of its elements to overpower the others. This science fiction novel full of horror elements at times reads like an unusual coming-of-age narrative, a tense psychological thriller, a sharp critique against control, and a strange, claustrophobic tale about loneliness that morphs into a collective love story with some murder sprinkled into the mix — and it works. It works because the story is character driven. When added to the rest of his oeuvre, Inspection establishes Malerman as a voice that personifies transformation and innovation. It’s impossible to read Malerman and not be excited about whatever he does next. 


by Josh Malerman
Del Rey; 400 p.

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