Revelation by Colin Winnette
Mutable Sound, 2011
There’s no revelation in Colin Winnette’s Revelation. That itself could be something revelatory.
Or that’s a disingenuously reductive way to begin a review. The blurb to end all blurbs. The sentiment that says nothing, reveals nothing.
Or maybe that’s the perfect way to begin the review of this book?
Or that’s not at all the feel of this book, the atmosphere it creates. Not at all what a person feels when she reads this book: an unsettling, quiet kind of recognition: of course we’re doomed. We never needed the fantastic fiction of religion to remind us.
Or that’s not at all what the book is meant to do: to remind us to resist the urge to make meaning; or maybe it’s the opposite: when the time comes, maybe, you know, we might consider why there’s a plague of locusts and stars falling and everything’s on fire.
The title of the book, the quotes from “Revelation” that set up each section, reveal an anticipation that will not be realized.
The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.
What follows in this section is only: a boy, Marcus, jumps from a bridge into the water beneath; the hail falling from the sky breaks a windshield; it is frozen water, not a harbinger; the fires burn and lawns burn and a house burns and:
Sometimes, his father said, trees just have to go.
That’s not a futile statement, as much as it is a kind of passive refusal to give the events, which perfectly mimic the quote that began the chapter, the meaning we think they might have.
But Winnette sets up a contrast. Marcus, one of the three boys the novel follows, is told by his father to not go into the woods, where everything is burning. As Marcus stands on the bridge, at the edge of the woods:
He felt like he’d broken a promise, even though he hadn’t when he thought about it. He could point to the woods from the bridge, and how could you be inside something you could point to?
This idea: that if you’re inside something, experiencing it, you can’t recognize it. You can’t see the mountain when you’re on the mountain, and all that. Maybe when you don’t realize you’re doomed, that’s the only moment when you see that you are?
The second quote from “Revelation,” about the things in the sea dying, becomes the next section in the novel, in the plot, as the ocean recedes into nothing. While the gathering crowds on the beach might want to make something of it, we read:
The beach was this great expanse to occupy. The weather was just fine.
But again, there are contrasts to this refusal to give meaning. Marcus’ father has become obsessed with making maps. Even his actions create them:
There were black arcs, motion marks, drawn by the rolling chair’s wheels, between the table and the telescope. Here was a kind of constellation of his father’s movement.
But although his father is making these maps, he is weary of what they might be wrongly perceived as representing:
“You have to fight the urge to see easy patterns,” his father said. “It can trip you up, thinking the stars are held up there like a net.”
But that doesn’t keep him from trying to track what happens.
For some reason, it’s comforting to think about.
Later in the book, when his father has moved into a home, Marcus visits his empty house:
The black cake of earth where once had been all of this random junk, now settled, as if unmovable. His father had left the house filled to the brim with collections of charts, encyclopedias, curios found in the woods and in people’s abandoned, burnt houses. He came home and stared at these objects as if a shape would emerge, some salutary, catastrophic constellation.
Of course it doesn’t. Marcus’s father watches, plots, the drift of the world. Not to predict it. Not to stop it. But to watch it happen. Which is what the novel does.
This is a novel that zooms in and out of lives, using the quiet silence of white space to advance through years.
This is a novel that rejects revelation, just as it maybe comes to a shifting conclusion about what’s predestined in spite of the rejection:
See, a star really does fall. Four men on horses really do arrive. Something like an angel crashes from the sky through a porch. None of this can keep a relationship between lovers together, none of this can solidify a friendship, a bond between father and son. None of these apocalyptic events changes what was already going to happen. When Colin dreams of the four horsemen before they appear, and then they appear, they don’t solve anything or reveal anything—except they make it so that Colin and Marcus, who have never seen horses, see horses. The only consequence of that angel falling from the sky through the porch is that the porch will have to be fixed.
None of this leaves a reader less unsettled. If anything, we’re left more so, akin to when Colin says:
So either you accept not knowing most things, and decide you don’t give a shit, then just keep doing whatever… Or you take not knowing and come up with a way of living with it.
This “living with it,” this is how this hushed, expansively concise novel affects a reader long after its last page: it’s not that anyone outlasts the apocalypse, it’s that every life is a collected scatter of threats of the end.