As much as I like reading, it’s never going to be the first thing my brain wants to do at the end of a long day. Maybe it’s that way for some nerds, but it’s never been that way for me. This is especially true with the type of literary fiction which I associate with the Booker. So I admit it was with some reluctance I picked up The Trees at midnight yesterday.
What I found wasn’t some wordy, worthy, worldly novel but a flat out rollercoaster. What a bloody read.
The Trees starts in territory which is dangerously familiar for anyone who’s been within sniffing distance of a bookshop and has realized the terrifying omnipotence of the Twee Murder Mystery genre. In a quiet town far away from the big city, where everyone knows everyone, someone is murdered. It turns out that more or less everyone had some reason to do it — the man has many enemies and even his friends dislike him. To complete the trope bingo card, there’s even an underlying Theme™ being explored. (A Theme™ is normally sexism, racism, inequality, jealousy, or love, and Twee Murder Mysteries usually apply it like middle-class Mums apply magnetic poetry to their fridges).
But excuse the rant, because any thoughts that this would be a Twee Murder Mystery were quickly dispelled. The Trees remains in this category for perhaps 50 pages before its story explodes out of the box, leaping all across America in a narrative that is, quite frankly, mad. Mad because of its scope in a relatively short book, and mad because somehow it still works remarkably well. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just say it reminded me strongly of the Atlanta episode on reparations, which shows what might actually happen in America if they were introduced on a national scale. Watching that episode, I thought, Oh, they’re really going to take it this far, and I had that same thought many times while reading The Trees. It’s rare to see an author take an idea and just run with it, seeing how far they can take it before the story bursts at the seams.
The pace of this book is largely down to its numerous short chapters, which are predominantly dialogue. It is so God damn refreshing to see a book like this nominated for the Booker. It feels like written dialogue, complete with speech marks and “he said,” “she said, ” is going out of fashion, simply because it’s how we’ve done it for centuries. There is no good reason for that to happen, as far as I’m concerned — removing it can be effective, but more often than not it is simply a gimmick. (See 2018 Booker winner Milkman, which not only did away with speech marks but also did away with names.) When written speech is done well, it’s unbeatable as a method of injecting character, pace, and humour. Here, it does all three.
Because this book is also funny. It satirises Southern hillbillies, yes, but satire is often more smile-knowingly funny than it is laugh-out-loud funny. The Trees is both, even at the risk of being labelled childish. Two cop partners named Ho and Chi feature in several chapters for little more than this one joke:
Ho parked the car in front of a tavern. Chi grabbed a fritter and Ho looked at him. A deputy sheriff said, “You the guys from Orange County?”
“Minh. Riverside Sheriff’s Department.”
This is humour so dumb its breaching into Dad Humour, but again, it’s refreshing that a book like this could be shortlisted for the Booker. It makes me all but certain it won’t win, but still, it’s nice to read something by an author who is often simply concerned with making his readers laugh.
Yet this is where The Trees becomes a confusing experience — because this book is about the lynching of Black people. Underneath all the humour is a tale of racial genocide and racial warfare, and that is a tonal shift big enough to give anyone whiplash. Everett should be applauded for attempting something so audacious, but I can’t imagine anyone could truly get this to work, and at some times, it just doesn’t. I’ve already mentioned the recurring jokes with the names — we have Carl Fondle, Chester Hobnobner, and Helvetica Quip — except then we are told that a Black man hanging from a tree was called Julius Lynch. Ha…ha?
I am not intelligent enough to guess what might be the intention of authors, but my best guess is that Percival Everett is going for a surreal tone here. The whole novel is overexaggerated; we were talking about Atlanta earlier, and you might fit both into the Afrosurrealism category. But it doesn’t always succeed.
In almost every other respect, though, it does. Considering we get relatively little time with most characters, their quirks and hypocrisies are drawn out incredibly well. Everett wastes no time with the “Don’t tell, show,” maxim — he tells us character traits immediately, and this was refreshing too. Characters also explain their motivations, which feels taboo, but this is actually quite true to life. People do constantly explain who they are and what they’re doing — it’s a self-validation mechanism for the insecure.
Since the story focuses on White people being killed, Everett took an interesting decision in making his central police and FBI investigators Black. At first, I assumed this was to avoid the awkward setup of a story about White policemen tracking down Black murderers, but it actually becomes a wider exploration of how Black people operate in White halls of power. The answer, as with most things in The Trees, is straightforward and unambiguous: because otherwise, the oppressors have all the power. This is particularly interesting given Percival Everett’s status as a university professor, one hall of power where racial issues seem both addressed and swept under the rug.
Anyway, apologies for the rushed review. Let me end by saying that the experience of reading this book was genuinely shocking, in several respects. I know that I liked it, but I still don’t know for sure how much. Part of me thinks in a few months I’ll look back and view it as ill-judged and unhinged, but a larger part of me thinks I might need more time to fully process its sheer radicalism. Overall — and unlike most Booker nominees — I’d recommend it to anyone.