Nothing compares to the satisfaction of seeing an author achieve exactly what you thought them capable of after reading their first couple of books. Matthew Revert, perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing, is also one of the most exciting voices in the space where surreal, literary, and plain weird fiction meet. With the release of Human Trees, his latest novel, that position has somewhat morphed into something new. After reading the book, it becomes obvious that Revert’s writing has reached the pinnacle of a shift that started long ago and that he now stands by himself in a special space where all the genres he brings to the table collide, implode, and coalesce into something entirely new and unique. Gone are the constant humor and surrealist onslaughts that characterized his earlier books and the absolute surrealism of his previous book, Basal Ganglia. Both have been replaced by some of the most profound, beautiful writing found in literary fiction and by touches of strangeness that put him next to Kafka, and I state the latter without batting an eye. In short, Human Trees is one of those rare books that merit being called a literary event.
The plot of Human Trees is deceptively simple: two brothers must go to a hospital because their parents suffered an accident and may be on the brink of death. From that simple setup, Revert moves in a plethora of directions at once. For starters, there is a lot of bad blood between the siblings, most of it stemming from the death of their sister years prior. There are also issues that each must deal with as they face the possibility of their parents’ demise. Lastly, the hospital is not what it seems and strange kids, potted people, a dying patient, an awful event involving a moth and a strange woman, clocks that don’t work, and a whole lot of waiting slowly turn their stay into a repetitive, distressing, surreal nightmare. The result is an atmospheric, somewhat dreamlike novel that explores the nature of trauma and the lingering effects of guilt.
Revert starts out in a normal place and lets readers know that pain, memories, and uncertainty will be at the center of the narrative. However, the story quickly begins to spiral in strange directions. Throughout all of it, the bizarre bits are intermixed with philosophical ruminations, surreal events, and writing that pushed the boundaries of literary fiction by exploring the essence of even the smallest things. Take, for example, a moment of silence between the two brothers:
Silence is when the unsaid is designated a platform. Ears beyond ears discern sound beyond sound, which is where the terror of silence feeds its heart. Silence is only rendered awkward by virtue of this fear, forcing the fearful to flood the soundlessness with any sound capable of drowning out the great unsaid.
One of the best things about Human Trees is that it takes place during a high-tension time when two siblings with a lot of bad blood between them are forced to spend time together in a weird place. This combination allows Revert to dance between the microcosm of the hospital and the macrocosm of a few lives, the past, and the myriad possible outcomes of their current situation. The author takes full advantage of this, going as far as repeating a traumatic event in order to bridge the gap between past and present via an invisible bridge that, in the case of these two men, is made of resentment.
When all is said and done, Human Trees performs one last trick: it ensures that its pages will remain inside the reader for a long time to come. If waiting, questions without answers, unexpected stories and encounters, and sound are at the center of the narrative at various times, by the last third, Revert winks at the readers and hints at the way he has been using words to dig deep into the subconscious, to make those who consume his writing part of what he has created, what he was “said” on the page:
These words are not spoken as much as released from imprisonment. They arrive desperate and dirty — unfamiliar with the decorum the world expects. It was easy to believe their incessant message when they were locked away, but their release into a place beyond him reveals their petty ugliness, embarrassing Michael. He continues to stare at his brother, noting how the color has drained from his face. The words have been given and cannot be taken back. Michael understands they now live within Robert too.
The words have been given, and fans of great writing will surely drink them up with reckless abandon. Matthew Revert knows that we are all fragile and carry within us enough to make ourselves shatter and/or to destroy others, especially when dealing with trauma, and Human Trees is all about showing us exactly that.
by Matthew Revert
Broken River Books; 156 p.