When Yellow Leaves
The protagonist of this satirical and borderline-dystopian novel must navigate familial crises, natural disasters, and the reach of a boorish, omnipresent head of state.
This is Reiss’ first novel after numerous volumes of poetry, but unlike many a poet-turned-novelist, he hasn’t opted for a stoic lyricism in his fiction. Instead, the active mode here is a satirical one. Set in the near future in a desert state grappling with sandstorms and external threats, this novel tells the story of a man named Boyd as his life undergoes several upheavals over the course of many days. A number of stylized elements stand out, including a ritualized aspect found in many characters’ speech, involving tributes to the head of state, one Guv’na Brush. Largely, this plays out like a fun-house reflection of contemporary politics, from Brush’s general dislike of literature, photography, and media to an allusion made to something being “a ruse cooked up by reporters.” Hints are scattered throughout as to how the present day gave way to this more catastrophic landscape; the ways in which dates have given way to a system based on a cult of personality suggest a more authoritarian version of the calendar found in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There are abundant contrasts to be found here, from the evocative landscapes that Boyd observes to the not-exactly-subtle commentary Reiss makes on American conservatism, militarism, racism, and anti-intellectualism. At times the juxtaposition between the two makes for a memorably jarring experience; at others, its relative success may depend on where its reader falls on the political spectrum.
When Reiss’ novel clicks, it works as both a strange vision of our own world and an evocative landscape unto itself.
Speculative fiction is an odd duck. Current tastes tend to run towards Young Adult libertarian-tinged dystopia (Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series), and it’s difficult to find novels that forge their own path. Fortunately, the debut novel from James Reiss gives readers a truly unique world that could, arguably, stand next to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (certainly less bleak but just as earnest and innovative in its telling).
Reiss, a lifelong poet, pulls his novel’s title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, one of the more fatalistic from the bard:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. . .
I doubt just how much of a key into the novel this allusion can be, but it certainly provides a ground. The passage of time and memory as well as rebirth hums in the background of Reiss’s story set in a post-apocalyptic United States that has somehow reverted back, devolved if you will, to a kind of retro-Depression era dust bowl dictatorship ruled by a figurehead that feels like a fascist Woody Guthrie (the Big Brother-like, Guv’na Brush). All of this is captured by one man, Boyd, and his relic Leica camera as he faces profound family crises and the land’s natural revolt.
With a poet’s eye, Reiss has plotted and framed his story well, told through Boyd over several days. As a struggling photographer, Boyd is the literal and figurative lens through which we see how anti-intellectualism and militarism can entwine to create this state, political and psychological. Everything in When Yellow Leaves is on the verge of collapse–Boyd, the State, and even the natural world–and it is less a question of why or how than of when. The novel works better when the reader resists the urge to force some allegorical or present day correlation (an incredibly difficult mindset to get into when reading speculative fiction). Its strength comes in reading the story as a snapshot of a moment in time about memory and forgetting and how one reacts in extremes. Reiss uses the speculative fiction genre to make his extremes something far from us yet enticing. Seeing how Boyd’s family breaks down (estrangement both intimate and political from his wife and the desperate attempt to keep his son safe but also somehow out of the mire that is Guv’na Brush) amid the cataclysm of sandstorms and earthquakes as the oppressive but loved regime falters makes for a compelling story. . . .
When Yellow Leaves is at once a traditional familial novel and a dystopian adventure tale; readers of either will find the book fresh and engaging.