Is love universal, or are there different types of love depending on the sort of people involved? Is brother-sister love different than mother-daughter love, or romantic love? Those are the sort of questions that come up in Jennifer Marie Brissett's ambitious new novel Elysium. Minor spoilers ahead...
I don't want to give away too much about Elysium, which is one of those books that sort of sneaks up on you with its weird, multi-layered premise.
But in a nutshell, Brissett presents the story of two people who love each other, but every few pages almost everything about them keeps changing due to a computer glitch. They're Adrianne and Antoine, a married couple going through a rough patch. Or Adrian and Antoine, a gay couple dealing with Antoine's illness. Or Adrianne is a vestal virgin in a futuristic Rome and Antoinette is her dead lover. Later in the book, their relationship becomes more likely to be that of brothers, or father-son.
And after time the narrative changes shape, there's a weird flood of gunky computer code, that looks like bastardized Unix mixed with binary code. It becomes obvious that these two people (and a few other recurring characters) are caught in a simulation that's glitching and reproducing different weird versions of their story in which almost nothing is the same except their names.
To some extent, this kind of set-up is the perfect place for a deep dive into identity and selfhood — how much can you change about these two before they're not the same people any more? Does it matter if they're a gay couple or a straight couple?
But really, Elysium is more like a kaleidoscope of love, in which different types of love and different manifestations of the emotion are filtered through the story of these two people — sometimes happy, sometimes miserable, sometimes tragic. It's like watching two actors act out an endless series of skits about different types of relationships that are doomed to varying degrees, and the main through-line is that certain things in the world keep shifting along with their circumstances.
Again, without giving too much away, it becomes clear by the halfway point through the novel that the world the simulation of Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinetta comes from is not at all like ours, and some massive changes have occurred. Even though the early chapters of the book seem to take place in a world like "ours," Brissett introduces more and more discordant and alien elements, until it starts to get stranger and stranger. You start to glimpse just what might have happened, that this human story needed to be preserved inside a complicated simulation that's breaking down.
Meanwhile, there are weird motifs that run through the book over and over, like a herd of elks that keep turning up in the city.
Elysium is a challenging read that keeps you second-guessing yourself, and trying to figure out what brings all these divergent love stories together is a baffling, obsessive challenge. The good news is, the book's ending is both powerful and makes sense of the rough outlines of what's gone before — and the final pages will actually make you stop and think about the strangeness and power of the splintered tales you've been reading.