San Francisco author Stephen Beachy describes his new novel as "collaborative." The exact number of collaborators is uncertain, but Beachy will be the first to tell you that one of them is Jake Yoder, a disturbed Amish boy whose fiction is precocious, whose facts don't always check out, and whose name isn't really Jake Yoder.
The book offers this disclaimer early, in a tellingly punctuated "Note from the 'Author.'" It establishes the context of its own creation, a 2006 school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa. That actually happened, right? I asked myself, before sheepishly Googling it, which only brought more questions: Is this the way we read now? Ignorant and skeptical, not even a page in and putting a book down to get on the computer?
Still, Beachy knows what he's doing. Part of that is interrogating our attachment to the idea of omniscience in narration. Jake Yoder emerges as a sixth grader whose proximity to the shootings was galvanizing: He believed his precocious fiction had caused them. Thereafter Yoder burned his work, which Beachy recovered and reconstructed. It's a fever dream of violent family dynamics and sexual initiations, played out among farms, mental wards, one-room schoolhouses, and its own hall of mirrors.
Next in the prefatory remarks is one Judith Owsley Brown, or JOB, identified as Beachy's editor. Casting doubt on whether Jake Yoder exists at all, she acknowledges the value of Beachy's discovery: "a young Rimbaud, if you will, lurking among the Old Order Amish." (Reportedly, Beachy's grandparents were Amish.) Brown and Beachy enter this boneyard together, batting the confused boy's half-immolated manuscript between themselves in a dance of dueling footnotes. And Beachy, having himself lifted the veil on the JT Leroy literary hoax for New York magazine in 2005, has every right to be weary of the game. But he's invigorated.
What this performance of transparency adds to Yoder's story — an endlessly replayed ruination of innocence that is the novel's core — is for the reader, Beachy's final collaborator, to decide. I'll call it an exquisitely sensitive mindfuck: at once caressing and (consensually) aggressive, as hugely satisfying as it is unsettling. With its hypnagogic obsessiveness and perceivable narrative gearwork, plus pubescent homoeroticism, it's as if the movie Inception had been written as a novel by Gus Van Sant.
Or by Jake Yoder: "He remembers what he learned in the asylum from that ex-paperboy — that you could build a story by intermingling lies with vocabulary words that would imbue it with a kind of magic or what people call madness."