I hesitate to condemn a book as conceptually off-kilter as Nathan Gelgud’s A House in the Jungle, which combines in its two-hundred-some-odd-pages transcendental meditation, primal scream therapy, dreamscapes blurring into the real, garbage bags stuffed with dead dogs, pineapples turned addictive by fertilizer made from tick blood, the moral bankruptcy of modern urban planning and what responsibilities (if any) the individual has to a community they’ve disowned. It’s a peculiar book, and if it fails – and it does – then to condemn it too harshly seems almost cruel, as though doing so would discourage Gelgud and those he might influence from trying to capture in their work something of the strange, the enigmatic, the impossible to explain.
Yet to give it a pass would be worse, because endorsing Gelgud and his hypothetical future imitators’ experiments would be to sabotage the exact kind of oddities I’d sooner trumpet. While it is, yes, a welcome slice of strangeness that Gelgud trots out in A Home in the Jungle, it’s insubstantial. This is a book that announces its ambition on every page but musters none of the profundity or mystery it positions itself worthy of, a civics lesson on the importance of political engagement masquerading as a slice of Lynchian weirdness which yields only easy answers without ever honestly engaging the uneasy wondrous that frustrates explanation in favor of deeper pleasures.
One could lay a large portion of the blame on the flat art, as uninspiring as it is uninspired. It’s not that I object to the lack of traditional panels, or to Gelgud’s lax approach to sequencing: one of the few genuine pleasures here is the unpredictable structure, which finds the line of motion often reversing two or three times in a single page according to no rules. It’s a playful approach to composition that provides one of the few aesthetic pleasures in a story that is otherwise so visually unadventurous that even its plethora of psychedelic dream sequences play as rote. Pineapple farmer Daniel and the denizens of the city he sells his crop to have little range of expression between them and little variance in form and even less in range of motion (the handful of action scenes here are truly cringe worthy, as a late-night bat-brawl near the climax demonstrates). They don’t just wear perpetually laconic expressions: their designs are similarly unattractive and limited, given to very little variance not so much because Gelgud seems interested in conveying how downtrodden they are or the unsettling onset of sameness that accompanies gentrification of every city but because he seems to lack the skill for much else.
After all, the characters fear this dulling sameness as though they were not already themselves so dull, but though given what little we see of the city or of their own interiors it’s impossible to tell why. For all the dozens of pages we spend in protagonist Daniel’s dreams and therapy sessions we learn little about his psychology. We can gather from the abstruse yet ultimately simplistic symbolism that he is a man desperate to be left alone who still subconsciously yearns for his own tribe until the day creeping urbanization forces him to realize (in the form of a dead body his pineapple business inadvertently causes to break a protective circle he’s drawn around his property) Donne’s old cliché that no man is an island. That a lack of political action is not actually a lack but an implicit support of the powers that be. His uncertainty, his guilt: all this is clear. Why he should so desperately desire solitude remains a mystery, though, as well as what it is in his revelations that finally spurs him to action. It would be easy to assume he’s simply scared of the encroaching urban blight given the trash bags full of dead dogs that show up at his door, but the story’s thematic resolution comes when he finds his literal tribe: his spiritual journey is to return to his people, but he establishes no connection with or love for them that is ever felt.
What connection could there be to these people, though, when the rest of the cast are nothing more developed than a gaggle of “quirky” city folk stock types ranging from the vain mayor to the nefarious developer to the wacky bum whose wild-eyed diatribes hide wisdom and prophecy? When not a single character has much that defines them? Or to the city, the fate of which seems so insubstantial when all we’re permitted to see are the city hall, a grocery store, a hardware store, a dump, and a single street? These spaces exists not in any real relationship to one another but in a floating white void that suggests nothing of how they connect and so no sense of the town’s real character. When one citizens bemoans how the onset of urban development might leave their town feeling “like...just any other place…” it’s difficult to sympathize, to understand this impending sense of dread because the town is so ill-defined it could use a city planner. At least then it might be somewhere at all.
It’s easy to see how one might leave A Home in the Jungle with a nagging sense of mystery. The story is replete with psychedelic imagery on almost every page that characters barely bother to address, let alone explain. The plot is presented elliptically, with only a modicum of dialogue to ease the way. Yet ultimately the symbols easily explain themselves as manifestations of Daniel’s alienation and conscience; the plot resolves without a hint of ambiguity. Ingredients this tepid cannot sustain continued interest. What seems more likely is that the novel’s numerous incomplete and unmotivated elements gives rise in turn to an elusive sense of discomfort in the reader because despite how much ado is made of these elements there is nothing here to pin them to. A story this seemingly abstract seems like it must have something to say; when it’s revealed it does not the brain flails, desperate to ascribe importance where there is none. If the experience feels frustrating that’s because it is. A House in the Jungle is counterfeit weirdness, cargo cult surrealism that cobbles together an illusion of the enigmatic the better to impart a sense of significance and awe to its pipsqueak epiphanies.