Lavie Tidhar’s The Escapement starts quietly enough: A man who has been sitting with his very ill son in a hospital room steps out for some fresh air and notices a small red flower by the sidewalk. Then we see that flower through the eyes of the Stranger in a surreal, barren landscape. We are off on a brilliant and unpredictable tour of a world only Tidhar could imagine. With his six-shooters, the Stranger rides his horse on a quest for a healing flower. This novel is a strange mix of darkly comic violence and the quiet devotion of a father’s love for his son.
The world the Stranger wanders is the Escapement. It is populated with grotesque clowns, bounty hunters who massacre them for money, and a variety of unique characters who sometimes help the Stranger, sometimes try to kill him. Above all, it is a world where time keeps sounding its relentless tick, tick but sometimes seems to stand still.
There are clocks everywhere, but none of them can quite move ahead. There is a melted one in the dead body of a bounty hunter. There are clocks in towers with frozen hands, except for the second arm, and the constant ticking, also stuck, so that the sound never quite completes. There is a warehouse full of clocks that suddenly burst through the roof and take flight, transforming into birds as they go. Then there is the title of the story. Escapement is not only the name of the world the Stranger rides through, it is a key part of a mechanical watch or clock. Reminders of time are everywhere, but time in the Escapement moves at different scales in different regions.
This is a dangerous and deadly place. In the background are violent storms which rain down symbols, crosses and geometric forms. There is a distant war in progress, the Titanomachy (originally the war between the Titans and the gods of Mt. Olympus) in which stone giants are fighting pupae umbrarum (shadow pupae or dolls?). Occasionally the Stranger comes across a scene of destruction, crushed victims caught under a giant stone foot, or broken remnants of huge stone bodies.
The atmosphere is often thick with ‘substance’ a mined drug which seems to form the basis of whatever economy the desolate landscape supports. There is a vast mine, known as the Hole, where enslaved clowns work under carnie masters, all of whom report to a strange figure known as the General who lives in a house that is more maze and trap than place of residence. And there is a mysterious powerful weapon in the shape of a fish, with golden scales, that flops about as if alive.
People live in settlements in an area known as the Thickening, especially in the city of Jericho, yet the way to get there is by train that follows looping tracks that turn back on themselves like knots. A troupe of aerial bandits swoop down to rob the train while the Stranger and his companions ride within. The action is nonstop, usually with absurdist touches, as the Stranger tries to make his way toward the Mountains of Darkness where he hopes to find the ur-shanabi, the Plant of Heartbeat.
He meets many strange people who tell their stories of surviving the war, which seems to have been going on for centuries. One woman tells him of survivors – a man who lost half his body but still moved normally, as if the missing part were there in ghost form, a woman whose head was turned into a mirrored helmet, another man who was half turned into an organ and whose movements produced mournful tunes. Yet everything in this strange world is full of human meaning and suffering. “We were veterans of a war we didn’t understand,” she says, “and just as quickly as we had been used we were discarded.” (Kindle ARC edition, Location 1444)
The story starts to shift when the Stranger notices traces of the “other place” as ghostly cars, people and buildings slip through the landscape from time to time. The man in that other place sits endlessly by the bedside of his ailing child. At one point, the Stranger travels into a deep tunnel that seems to come out at the hospital room, but as he approaches it his own body becomes translucent. He can’t be sure if the man in the hospital room has dreamed him into being or if the Stranger has dreamed that man. The barriers between realities are tenuous, and there is a frightening uncertainty about where he belongs.
These shifts of consciousness between worlds and the drawing of themes and symbols from one reality into another remind me of Iain Banks’ The Bridge. But The Escapement is an original masterpiece that is all Tidhar, full of echoes of his earlier stories and novels.
As Tidhar notes in an Afterword, he has drawn on numerous sources, including Hebrew and Russian fairytales, Greek myth, Dr. Seuss, Salvador Dali’s painting and the Epic of Gilgamesh, among others. But all of that is integrated perfectly into a compelling story that no one else could have envisioned. It is written in often beautifully moving language that reminds me of the more personal style of Tidhar’s Central Station, which also deals with boundaries and borders in a very different way.
Each of Lavie Tidhar’s novels seems unique, yet the quality of imagination, the brilliance of writing and many themes tie them together. For me each of his novels feels like a breakthrough into a different level of consciousness, full of wonder, bizarre twists and turns and always deep feeling.
My thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for letting me have an advance review copy for this review.