March 2016

Zachary Solomon

fiction

Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht

Rosalie Knecht's debut novel Relief Map is a deft chemistry experiment. The hypothesis: What happens when a suspected terrorist infiltrates a small rustbelt town, police bar the exits, cut the power and phone lines, and the townspeople are left to roast, helplessly, in the heat of the beating summer sun? The results are expected -- stranger-danger fear alchemizes into exuberant panic, and like a contagion leaping from host to host, everyone seems suspicious and no one is safe.

Told in a distant third-person through the introspective eyes of sixteen-year-old Livy Markos, Relief Map is an impressive story with difficult ideas, even if, at times, the ideas become neutered in their conveyance. Livy is a teenager good at doing teenager things -- when she's not spending time with her best friend Nelson, she is knee deep in the creek, exploring, or wading through the pastures, "pulling watercress out of their spring, walking bent-legged on cow paths through their waste of brambles." She exhibits a self-awareness rare in people her age: she is good, for instance, at "identifying her emotions by their names, even when in the grip of them." This awareness is at the heart of what is at once satisfying and frustrating about the novel: often, Livy's actions push the plot forward, which means it can be maddening to watch the teenage impulse butt heads with what is almost always the ethically correct and logical thing to do. When Livy becomes immersed in the novel's two major events -- one in which she has agency, one in which she does not -- the problems in writing a convincing teenage character become apparent.

Lomath, Pennsylvania, the half-mile-long stretch of a town where Relief Map takes place, is unincorporated, bookended by eighteenth-century textile mills, and boasts a population of 150. Many of these townsfolk get full names and small but effective biographies, and they all know Livy. Lomath is "unidentified on road maps, hidden from the highway [...] by its ring of high ridges." Livy imagines that the Lomathians have always felt like "no one was watching them," and while the police blockades apparently keep the press out, it is not the outside world the townsfolk are concerned with, but a simmering, pervasive suspicion that trains their eyes toward each other.

Lucky for Livy and her friends, the Lomathians, like the world at large, do not care about teenagers, a societal snub which would have belied Livy's involvement in the story had she been old enough to draw attention to herself. But it's the presence of Revaz, the suspected Georgian terrorist curiously adept at evading state and federal police, that elevates the novel from the kid-fantasy of, say, Scooby-Doo or The Hardy Boys; this is not a universe in which adolescents take on dangerous criminals. No, this is a universe of guarded emergency, "the kind that [seeps] into people's homes like radon poisoning and [makes] them act peculiar." Livy's parents, who behave so coldly and irrationally that Livy believes they're hiding something, pay Livy just enough mind to forbid her from leaving the house, a command she repeatedly ignores.

Whether the danger in Lomath is imminent or exaggerated, it nevertheless whiffs of bona fide peril. Though Lomath is disconnected from the grid, post-9/11 American paranoia pervades, and what begins to happen, as the blockade stretches from hours into days, is a brilliant congealment of fear into something almost sentient. The townspeople act in unison; they form a militia, and, distrusting the police, search each house in town, looking for the terrorist. All of this frees Livy up to do what teenagers do best: get in way over her head.

Livy and Nelson -- whose easy friendship and romance is written with sublime and gleeful humanity -- implicate themselves in a scheme, hatched by Dominic, a more classically harebrained teenager, to slip out of Lomath and into the neighboring town of Maronne. Dominic's mother needs prescription medications that Lomath's general store doesn't carry. To say that the plan, which implodes under the halogen lights of the 24/7 Quick Drug pharmacy, goes poorly, would be understatement. Livy, for her part, does her best to mediate and stop the situation from escalating. She is, after all, a good kid. But, like a kid, she is powerless. It's in these and similar moments where Knecht's talents as a writer are on full display. Knecht has an admirable knack for suspense and an impressive control over chaos. But one can't help wondering what Livy is doing there in the first place, and why, now that she is there, she doesn't simply walk away. As the novel progresses, it becomes more difficult to chalk up Livy's behavior to the unchecked and unexplainable machinations of the teenage spirit. "This isn't like you," her mother tells her, and that seems true, despite the extraordinary circumstances that have beset Lomath, and the hyperactive terror of its inhabitants.

But Knecht, to her great credit, is aware of this problem of teenage characterization, and works with it, not against it. When Livy and Revaz -- who gets several short and wanting chapters of his own -- finally, inevitably, meet, Livy wades further into the real world where actions and consequences aren't always commensurate, and sometimes don't even make sense. It is in this relationship where issues of dubious ethics and culpability come alive. In many ways, Relief Map is a story concerned with the dissemination of information. What Knecht tells us, and when, is tantalizing -- but it is precisely this dam of information that forms the most engaging and challenging conflict of the novel. Revaz is a sympathetic character; and the reader, like Lomath, does not know anything about him, including whether he is guilty of his crimes, whatever they may be. So when Livy is given a choice to entangle herself in his life in the engrossing final third of the novel, her sense of right is forced to battle with the potential of great wrong.

Livy may act like a teenager, with all of the hair-pulling entailed therein, but, by the end of Rosalie Knecht's absorbing and lively debut, it becomes apparent that sometimes the most pressing judgments of our time, the most dangerous, the most difficult, and the most morally dubious, are decisions only a teenager can truly make.

Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht
Tin House Books
ISBN: 978-1941040225
275 pages