[Voluntary Committal by Joe Hill. Subterranean Press, 2005.]
Joe Hill's new novella, Voluntary Committal, can best be described in one word: disquieting. The story peels back the mask of childhood innocence to reveal how cruel children can be, while simultaneously tearing holes in the fabric of adulthood and the belief that with age comes understanding. Hill's children are wise and powerful; his adults are weak and confused. It is this inversion that lends the book much of its ability to upset the reader. Told in the first person, by an adult with no ability to solve the mystery that has become his life, it is a journey back into the half-remembered, dreadful knowledge of childhood.
Even in the first words of the story, we are confronted with the absolute powerlessness of adults. Nolan, the narrator, writes,
I don't know who I'm writing this for, can't say who I expect to read it. Not the police anyway. I don't know what happened to my brother, and I can't tell them where he is. Nothing I could put down here would help them find him.
Not only is Nolan himself useless, but by his implication of the police, the symbol for authority and force in society (the "punishing adults" in the state/family metaphor), he renders all adults equally useless.
Within a few pages, the confines of the story are laid out for us. Nolan's younger brother, Morris, has disappeared from the psychiatric institution in which he was living. Nolan cannot help but believe that this is connected to another disappearance, that of his childhood friend Eddie Price, years ago. Finally, we learn that Nolan knows, deep inside him, that neither of these two will ever be found. They have gone somewhere beyond the reach of reason and its army of concerned adults.
From its beginning at the end of the story, Voluntary Committal quickly jumps back in time to tell the story chronologically. We follow Nolan as he gets involved with Eddie, a typical "troubled youth," who is at times violent, at times fun, and at times just a scared and lonely child. Simultaneously, Morris grows from a mute child to a strange one, who today would probably be diagnosed with autism or Asperger's Syndrome. He is thin and elfin, lives in his own world, and loves nothing more than creating strange buildings out of Dixie cups, popsicle sticks, dominoes, and cardboard boxes. By the time Eddie enters Nolan's life, Morris has perfected his building skills, and has taken over the entire basement of their house for his ever-changing box maze. Amorphous, strange, and as much a creation of the imagination as a physical space, this maze/these mazes are a metaphor for childhood itself. As Nolan describes them:
It was different with his cardboard hideouts than it had been with the things he built out of Dixie cups or dominoes. While his other construction projects had clear beginnings and endings, he never really seemed to finish any one particular design with his cardboard boxes. One scheme flowed into another, a shelter becoming a castle becoming a series of catacombs.
Presaging what is to come, Nolan ends his description of his brother's fortresses by saying "the things he built with cardboard left him restless and dissatisfied...until he got it right, the great looming thing he was building in the basement had a curious and unhappy power over him." Soon, that curious and unhappy power would exert itself over Nolan and Eddie as well.
It is hard to write a review of a novella without giving away too much of the plot; suffice it to say, from this point on, things go poorly. Eddie escorts Nolan into a world of juvenile delinquency, and in return, Morris drags Eddie into a world of his own creation. Eventually, as everyone does, the narrator manages to forget (or at least, bury) the parts of his childhood that were upsetting—Eddie included. That is, he buries it until Morris disappears, at which point he must confront both disappearances at the same time, and admit to himself that something has happened which he cannot rationally explain.
The reason that Voluntary Committal works so well is the way in which the story is told. The narration is bare-bones, and the author is careful to never go beyond what the narrator could actually know. There is no omniscience here; no third person voice to fill in the gaps. This heart of this story is the missing information, the unexplained and unexplainable—which is what makes it so real. Everyone has a story or a moment in their life where they have been confronted with something they cannot explain. Like Nolan, we either repress those memories, or seek traditional answers for them. Voluntary Committal is the story of a man who can no longer ignore the impossible. By avoiding neat answers, both fantastical and reality based, Hill leaves us confused and frightened—like Nolan himself.