Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson is a cleverly told story that takes place in an America that is both familiar and unique and moves in and through time. Filled with illustrations from documents, drawings supposedly made by the characters themselves, there is so much creativity used to tell the parallel stories of Zeke Thomas and his ancestor Zadoch Thomas. The blurb itself suggests a further connection—Zadoch Thomas has been given the responsibility to deliver a secret letter and, three centuries later, Zeke is given that letter when his own grandfather dies. Things begin to spiral out of control when the letter goes missing.
That’s all in the blurb and it takes over 100 pages for the letter to go missing. And the cloud of bats, also mentioned in the blurb, don’t appear until after page 300. Until then, you are supposed to become so enchanted with the men’s stories, and the stories of the women, Eliza and Elswyth, that you can’t help but read on in spite of the constant shifts in story from one narrator to another, into the novel within this novel and all the transcripts and documents that are provided.
It is truly a well-crafted novel and I can’t help but think that the author got caught up in How he wanted to tell the story and What he wanted the reader to take away from the story that he forgot two very important things: characters and plot. The characters here are all two-dimensional and nobody has a clear change of heart. In other words, the bad guys stay bad and the good guys remain boring page after page after page. Even when the characters were most in peril, I had no problem putting the book down and picking up another book.
Seriously, when reading a memoir about depression and suicidal ideation is more entertaining than a novel, something is wrong.
The plot is thin, at best. There really is no narrative arch whatsoever. I desperately hoped that the conclusion would brilliantly tie everything together but it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I love novels that have ambiguous endings and/or don’t fall into the neat little package of a happy ending. I didn’t want something concrete. I just wanted . . . something. And this novel offered nothing but a few fragments of interesting images and mostly tedious to read text. (Don’t even get me started on the white font on black paper, which was bad enough without there being grey font on black paper. FYI, there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of websites that use grey font on a black screen and you’d think someone would have figured out a still clever but more legible way to translate the author’s creative intent accordingly.)
After slogging through the hundreds of pages of disjointed content, the story ends and Dodson inserts a photograph of a bat suffering from White-Nose Syndrome and explains that the bat population is at huge risk because of this fungus. He shares a link to the BatCon organization. If you simply must part with your money or merely want to learn more about bats, I urge you to google Bat Conservation International and donate the money you would spend on this book directly to them. You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and tedium and still have the pleasure of learning more about bats. And it’s great to want to draw attention to the plight of bats. Too bad an author with as much inspiration but more talent couldn’t have bene the one to do it. Unfortunately, the ones I think best equipped to have done this more effectively are not alive (David Foster Wallace, Terry Pratchett) or have other things to write (Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates). In the hands of an author who could make how the story is told as important as the story itself, perhaps the bat population would stand a chance.