Book of the Week: Matthew Olshan’s ‘Marshlands’

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The current wave of fiction set in a dystopian version of our world — be it the future or otherwise — is no doubt a product of the unprecedented and ongoing violence, strife, and economic troubles in our post-9/11 world. Things are bad, and things are scary; writing about worst-case scenarios is the way that writers make sense of things. We have already seen two such novels in this young year: Adam Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready gives us a bombed-out New York City where the rich and poor have never been further apart, while Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario is set in a world ruled by fast-food corporations. The plots of these books might seem farfetched to you, or not; but it is easy to see how our weird world can inspire worried writers to let their imaginations run wild.

But there is another type of dystopian story, the personal one where everything on the page can only be envisioned in gray. Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading is a perfect example. The protagonist, Cincinnatus C., is obviously living in a country comparable to the Oceania of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four — if only we got to know the place better. Instead, we read about Cincinnatus C.’s personal downfall, one that leads to the executioner’s block, where we find out, in some proto-Matrix way, that this whole life was a lie.

I was thinking of Invitation while I read Matthew Olshan’s debut novel, Marshlands. Its tone also reminded me of the one Ben Marcus (who wrote his own dystopian novel, 2012’s The Flame Alphabet) sets in his work. Olshan’s eerie story starts with an officer being released from his cell after years of confinement. Like Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., not much is clear about him, his crime, or especially the place he lives in, which is what gives Marshlands its edge. The setting is key, because it could be our own world, but it could be somewhere significantly different. We meet a group of people living on the fringes of society, the marshmen, who might be marginalized, but are still willing to fight for their freedom.

There are plenty of real-world parallels you can draw to Marshlands. The prisoner trying to come to grips with the world beyond his cell at the start of the book speaks loudly to our prison-industrial complex nation. As the books skips backwards and forwards, we find the prisoner was once a doctor who helped the marshmen. A boy asks him his tribe, and the doctor says he doesn’t have an answer for him. “I could say my tribe is the occupying army,” he offers, then goes to say that what he wants to tell the boy is, “My people have evolved beyond tribes. But to a marshman, that would be absurd.” Reading this sort of exchange, we’re forced to think critically about the ways in which we hear people in our own world talking about cultures they don’t understand.

This is what makes Marshlands the type of dystopia for people who are sick of dystopias: things are bad, but the reader is left to try and piece together why exactly that is. We’re made to draw more conclusions than we would from a book that lays out the who, what, when, and where, and why more clearly, and the work it requires of us makes the short novel (just a hair under 165 pages) all the more engaging.