By Alex Carrigan
Manifestos are dangerous in nature. They’re principled declarations that can tell you everything you need to know about the author, but they also threaten to force that person to commit to their point of view. When one writes a manifesto, they are hoping to immortalize their beliefs at the time and leave a statement for future generations to absorb and consider when facing various situations. Manifestos are tricky in nature, and they require a lot of thought behind them.
In a new book from Whisk(e)y Tit, David Tromblay’s The Essentials: A Manifesto presents a manifesto that has emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagines what could come from a world following it. In a near-future setting, the world population has surpassed 10 billion, and attempts to control the population growth have led to worldwide attempts to revalue life. Borders are closed, property is seized, people are relocated, and medicine is commodified even more than before. The novel follows Jonathan Shaddox, a courier for a medical company as he and a nameless runner drive around Duluth delivering supplies, with Shaddox educating the youngster about the world before everything changed.
The novel alternates between conversations between Shaddox and the runner and news reports of major events since the world changed. The conversations are about various facets of the world around them and Shaddox’s own personal history, from his early years on a reservation to his time in a war to his current family situation. The conversations discuss matters like income inequality, the environment, democracy, and more as they’ve all radically changed over the last several years. News reports show how these changes occurred, from the seizing of national parks to use as resources and land development to the dissolution of the National Bureau of Veterans Affairs following “the Desert Wars.”
Tromblay’s writing is fascinating in that the reader is kept detached from the story so they can take all this in objectively. Aside from the news clips having the same detached tone as any modern piece of journalism, the parts with Shaddox withhold setting descriptions and use action minimally. The dialogue doesn’t even use quotation marks, making it somewhat hard to keep track of who’s talking at certain moments. Even the way they talk can blur at times, as both can alternate from critical and cynical to hopeful and curious at other times.
While this does mean the reader can focus on the manifesto aspect of the tale, it does mean that it can be a bit harder to feel the world around it. We’re told the world has fallen apart and that things are way worse off in the future because Shaddox and the news reports say so. We’re told the world is so bad that people will throw themselves in front of Shaddox’s truck and that he’s so numbed to it that he’ll keep driving when they do. But The Essentials keeps the reader at almost too much of a distance at times to where it’s difficult to really absorb the state of the world and fear that our world could become like it. We’re presented with ideas and commentary as per the manifesto, but the tale itself could have benefitted from allowing the reader to experience it rather than be cramped in Shaddox’s passenger seat. Part of this may be due to some reveals towards the end of the book, but those aren’t as effective due to the detachment that lessens the impact of those reveals.
The Essentials has some good ideas, and the writing is compelling and current enough that readers will probably walk away considering if we’re already in the handbasket that’s being lowered slowly into Hell via fishing line. However, the story loses a lot of its impact because it ties itself so hard to the manifesto aspect that it may not be as effective as a statement as it could be. Of course, the story does set out to make a statement, and it is commendable that it did analyze issues that may not have been at anyone’s forefront, so while it may not be the most effective statement, it is one that would be harder to scrub off the walls.
You can find the book here: https://whiskeytit.com/product/the-essentials/
Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Virginia. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Gertrude Press, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, “Stories About Penises” (Guts Publishing, 2019), “Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wea” (Et Alia Press, 2020), and “ImageOutWrite Vol. 9”