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Arts

If Monsters Were Real, This Book Knows What You'd Really Do — Nothing

No Gods, No Monsters, by Cadwell Turnbull

What would you do if monsters were real?

No, wait. Think about that for a moment. If the last several years have taught us anything, it's that our actual reactions to things are not always (or ever) what we imagine they might be.

I mean, what would you do if a global pandemic was real? What would you do if the millions of dead were real? What would you do if American fascism was real?

What would you do if monsters were real?

Cadwell Turnbull knows exactly what you'd do. Almost all of you. Almost all the time.

You'd do nothing.

His new book, No Gods, No Monsters (the first in a series with extraordinary potential) is a terrible gut-punch of a thing once you get past the surface. Once you dig in and start thinking about it maybe more than you meant to. It has layers to it. Questions that don't ever get answered. Possibilities scattered like pennies on the ground.

And I'm not saying the surface is any walk in the park either. It begins with a goodbye — a first-person lead-in about walking away, about going home, from a character who becomes the eyes, ears, occasional tongue, of an omniscient, invisible narrator relaying to us everything that follows. It is disjointed. A cold drop into the complicated life of a man we do not know and who, almost as soon as we meet him, is left behind.

What would you do if monsters were real? Cadwell Turnbull knows exactly what you'd do. Almost all of you. Almost all the time. You'd do nothing.

After that, it's about the police shooting and killing an unarmed Black man and leaving him to die in the street. That's where No Gods really digs in. The man, Lincoln, had been addicted to drugs, estranged from his family, living on the street. Not the sort of man the community rallies around, Turnbull tells us. But when Lincoln's sister, Laina, is mysteriously offered a copy of suppressed police bodycam footage of the shooting, it becomes a whole different kind of story.

Because Laina's brother was a werewolf. The recording proves it.

Laina releases the footage. It goes viral. Everyone in the world sees it — sees her brother, the wolf, attacking a Boston cop, the cop shooting, her brother lying naked and dead in the street, transformed back into a man. The world reacts the way the world does — with panic, hate crimes, witch burnings, madness. Especially when, not long after, a pack of a dozen werewolves show up in the middle of a busy street, stop traffic, and transform in full view of the public and a million cell phone cameras.

Monsters are real. They live among us. Magic is real. It is practiced by powerful people and secret societies with strange names and histories that stretch back generations. And none of it is cute. None of it is pretty. It is all pain, violence and bloody sacrifice. All messy, weird and arcane; barely understood even by those who use it; dangerous to all involved.

Turnbull posits this world and gives us the barest hints of its dimensions. He focuses on characters — breaking the novel into sections, each following a different person, all of whom are connected in one way or another, most of whom are still reeling even months after "the Fracture" — which has become the name given to the moment that the monsters were revealed to the world by pop science and TV pundits. There's Laina, her asexual, trans husband Ridley, Laina's girlfriend Rebecca (who knew Lincoln), the frustrated, divorced academic who falls down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and secret societies, a child called Dragon, an invisible woman, a senator from St. Thomas who can turn into a dog. The story loops and swerves, bouncing from an anarchist bookstore to a collective peanut farm to a commune in the Virgin Islands to the streets of Boston and New York, small towns and secret hideouts. It is both beautifully fantastical and wondrously mundane as each of Turnbull's sharply detailed characters work through (or don't) both the enormity of regular life and the parallel enormity of the Fracture. They balance havoc and haircuts, budget meetings and Old Gods.

The thing that's buried deep, deep in the heart of this difficult book and speaks loudest to this moment and our reality is the idea that most people, most of the time, will gladly claim that monsters and magic are not in fact real even when they see them with their own eyes.

Turnbull is juggling a lot. There's race and sexuality and class and collectivism. (The title is taken from a slogan of the labor and anarchist movements — "No gods, no masters" — and those words would be right at home in the mouths of many of his characters.) There's the overarching idea of othering those who do not look like us or live like us or love like us, and the terrible consequences of both hiding our secrets and revealing them. He sketches (sometimes very lightly) a shadowy world filled with competing power structures with entirely opaque agendas, allies and shifting goals — favoring always a chaotic kind of confused, workaday realism over the fictional conceit of anyone simply sitting down and explaining to anyone else what is actually going on.

But the strangest, most haunting thing about No Gods, No Monsters — the thing that's buried deep, deep in the heart of this difficult book and speaks loudest to this moment and our reality — is the idea that most people, most of the time, will gladly claim that monsters and magic are not in fact real even when they see them with their own eyes. Even when the monsters are on the news. Even when the monsters are sitting at their dinner table.

Most people, most of the time, simply don't want to think about it.

Most people, most of the time, just want the world to go back to the way it was — which is the one thing that the world (both Turnbull's and ours) will never do.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He's the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.