Josh Malerman is best known for his disturbing, deeply original novel “Bird Box,” about a mother determined to save her two young children, even though it will mean rowing 20 miles down a river, blindfolded. The brilliant elevator pitch behind that book? When you see it, whatever it is, you will kill yourself on the spot: hence, the mother’s need for the blindfold. The novel became a frightening movie and then an even more terrifying cult phenomenon, as people began vying for Darwin Awards by doing stupid things while blindfolded - including, yes, driving.
A sequel, “Malorie,” is set to publish in October. In the meantime, we have “Inspection,” a novel whose premise is also claustrophobic and unsettling, but more ambitious than that of “Bird Box.” A married couple, convinced that “genius is distracted by the opposite sex,” create an elaborate world in the woods of northern Michigan where 26 boys are raised from birth in one tower and 26 girls in another; neither group is allowed to know another sex exists. Humans are not the result of procreation but quite literally grow on trees. The goal is to raise “the world’s greatest engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.”
The children have special teachers, special novels and special movies, all of which reinforce a one-gender world. There are also plenty of ex-cons to keep the adult faculty and support staff in line. The children, meanwhile, fear something called simply “the corner,” where two boys and one girl have been sent - and from which they never returned. They were, in the parlance of the adults running this experiment, spoiled rotten. (It is worth noting that it seems not to have crossed the minds of Malerman’s husband and wife visionaries that some of their boys and girls will be gay, a variable that would certainly impact an experiment designed to remove love and romance as intellectual distractions.)
When the novel opens, the “Alphabet Boys” are 12 years old and the “Letter Girls” are 11. In other words, they are on the cusp of puberty. So, even Richard and Marilyn - aka, “D.A.D.” and “M.O.M.” - the married mad scientists behind this endeavor, anticipate that what they refer to as the “delicate years” will be problematic. But like all mad scientists (or parents of any middle-school aged child), they seriously underestimate what looms ahead.
Two especially precocious tweens, a boy named J and a girl named K, figure out something is amiss. (The fact that the children are referred to by letters, instead of names, makes it difficult to differentiate all of them except for J and K and also results in sentences like this: “There had long been tension between conservative E and funny B.”)
J learns the world is not as they have all been taught from an adult, who, overwhelmed by his guilt at the way he and his peers have been lying to their charges, goes rogue and writes a tell-all book: a novel for the boys to read that actually has women in it. Separately, K begins to suspect the “parenthood” has been lying to her when she spies the second tower in the distance and then does some seriously impressive sleuthing.
“Inspection” is rich with dread and builds to a dramatic climax. The last hundred pages are tense as we watch these young kids make decisions that will lead either to emancipation or the corner - which, it is pretty clear, is a euphemism for where the ex-cons quite literally bury the bodies. This is where the book is at its best.
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And even as the young people do battle with the ultimate monsters, “M.O.M.” and “D.A.D.” and their ex-con inspectors, Malerman reminds us the real horror is not the blood that will splatter the towers. It is not the loss of innocence precisely, but something subtler and more poignant - the malevolence that could see yearning and love as something negative in the first place:
“[K] thought ... of the feelings she had for J. Of the way he made her feel. The things he liked. His worries. His life. His voice. His eyes.
“She paused in the pines, infused suddenly with what could only be called inspiration.
“And she wondered, aloud, what kind of cruel people could consider such feelings a distraction.”
Indeed. The children are not in cages in Malerman’s eerie new book. But they are lab rats.