Levon a is not like anything I have read before. I imagine that will be true for most of you as well. Its secret is in its name, levon a. Back up and read it again, backwards this time. That is exactly how this marvel postmodern experimental novel was written. The first paragraph on the first page is the most recent part of the story and that moment in time is held in one paragraph. The first sentence of the next paragraph is a few seconds earlier and the first sentence of the next is earlier again. Each succeeding chapter goes back in time until the final chapter in the mythos from which this story developed—its inception.
But this is not an experiment just for the sake of experimentation. There is a compelling story that draws us in and back into time. We want to know more and the somewhat unreliable narrator makes sure that when things begin to click into place, we are not truly certain they have really clicked.
The story opens at the wedding of Professor6489 (She’s on Twitter!) shortly after she kicked out the disruptive He Song (An evil man we are told.) though his companion The Jade Thief remains. As the story goes back in time, we learn how they came to be there, how their relationships have altered and changed over time. We also learn about The Monkey King, He Song’s son, who died and the child Emperor PiYu, He Song’s childhood friend and companion.
The novel, or should I say levon eht, takes us back through Chinese history, from 2016 to 1906. It takes us from Empire to the Japanese invasion, from the Republic through the many movements of the Communist regime to the new capitalism. And our narrator saw it all.
I know there is beauty and meaning and significance in the complexity of our lives on earth. Otherwise, we are just animals.
I prefer us to be human.
The prose is spare and unadorned, like a shui-mo word painting in ink and letters. There is so much beauty in its simplicity. Wonderful phrases jumped out at me. The “dependable rocks forever stay by the river.” Well, of course they do, they cannot get up and walk, but how lovely that he called them dependable. A child sees a stray hair floating in the air and imagines it is “an almost-invisible dragon visiting the human race.”
The story is fascinating, full of action and great things happening, but it is not easy. Reading backwards is not natural to me and despite the narrator’s assurance that I will get used to it, I only sometimes did. Sometimes I would read it as intended and then go read it forwards from the back for a few paragraphs just to make sure I knew what was happening.
I struggled with this book and sometimes found it slow-going and frustrating, but not all great books are easy. I seldom award 5 stars because I reserve it for books that are original, fresh and unique, not simply a “good read” whatever that is. This is for the books that have not been done before, and sometimes because they are so new, they are a struggle. Learning to read a book backwards, not easy. It’s a strange experiment and yet the story came to make sense. It worked and that is the ultimate test.
I was given a digital advance galley from the publisher through NetGalley.