As the first chapter of Steve Himmer’s new novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, dissolves into the second, the reader quickly realizes this will be a story told through contrast. After a preliminary glimpse of our narrator, now inhabiting a kind of Eden (albeit one in which all is not quite paradise), we flash back to the narrator’s previous life of cubicle drudgery. We learn that our narrator is named Finch, that he works in “brand awareness” for a company that sells fake plants, that he is being, or rather, has been fired.
Though many of us understand and have led, or do lead lives of sheer corporate drone-ness, Finch’s life puts our own office park anonymity to shame:
And the more I said through my ciphers, the less I spoke in real life. My cube was in a far corner of the department, near some filing cabinets to which the keys had been lost, so apart from occasional walks to the bathroom and my twice-daily route between front door and desk, I was easy to miss. The faces changed around me without introduction, and in time no one knew who I was. There was no director of brand awareness for me to assist, and no one asked what I was doing. I’d been forgotten, become furniture in my far corner, and that’s how I held onto the job for as long as I did…
…Years went by offline, too. Computers and carpets upgraded around me, but always at night so I never saw how or by whom. The restaurant across the street from our office changed from sub shop to low-carb to noodles to salads, then back to sub shop again, and I ate whatever it sold. I gave up my newspaper subscription and read only the headlines from my browser’s home page, then I stopped reading news altogether because the headlines were the same ones they’d been all my life.
Upon reading this godawful depressing bit, the reader could be forgiven for feeling a bit skeptical. Surely, surely, no one could hold a job down and be so utterly forgotten? Surely Himmer’s characterization of Finch is…an exaggeration?
But of course it is. And that’s exactly the point. The reader’s patience pays off as Finch’s life, which one feels could not get any worse, continues its numbing downward spiral–because this is the set-up. Himmer, skillful as he is, is delivering us the first bits of an allegorical novel, one in which the narrator lives a life as dead as winter grass, as tepid and useless as old bathwater. Finch is, sometimes quite literally, sleepwalking through life less a fully-realized character than as a lonely sort of modern-day Everyman. We don’t learn much about Finch, ever, except that his life as a worker bee is so lonely and boring and sad that he has been driven to create and maintain blogs for imaginary people, elaborate fictions whose lives online are full of all the richness and variety and company, for good or for bad, that Finch’s is not.
Just as Finch’s unemployment has taken him to a place so dark and lonely that the reader can bear no more, Himmer gives him a way out through the mysterious billionaire, Mr. Crane. Crane, as it turns out, has been watching Finch for some time, in fact owns the fake plant company, and has decided Finch would make a perfect addition to the eccentric billionaire’s beautiful garden. In fact, Finch can start today, provided he accepts the offer: live in Crane’s garden and be the estate’s own decorative hermit.
To Himmer’s credit, Finch does not wrestle with the decision, as indeed the allegorical Everyman should not. He simply accepts, drifting almost instantly into his new life of hermitude with gratitude and a fatalistic sense that things are finally as they should be.
The Bee-Loud Glade is also a testament to Himmer’s talent for making sentences, and is filled with appropriately reflective and insightful observations, like this one on Finch seeing Crane’s mansion for the first time:
I’d discovered, in a flash, that hill dwellers have the advantages of scope and scale; the billionaires on these hills have dominated the city for as long as they’ve been here, and maybe it’s because they see all of it before them at once. Even as they sit on their toilets they must have a grand view; what passes as a necessary waste of time for everyone else, a few hurried minutes in some boxy bathroom tucked away at the back of a boxy apartment, becomes quiet time for reflection from a throne with a broader view of the world. When for some people, even taking a crap is empowering, it’s no wonder the rest of us work for them.
But Himmer’s writing is at its most luscious, its most musical, when he is describing the garden and Finch’s life within it. It’s clear that this is a subject that Himmer cares very much for: our stewardship of the earth and our modern remove from it. I have to confess that at times, the supposedly idyllic life that Finch leads in Crane’s garden left me less than convinced–not because Himmer is not a masterful writer, but because I am not as much of a nature lover as I’d like to be. I felt vaguely itchy throughout the book, and the idea of sleeping in a cave without a wall between me and the creepy-crawlies would scare the living bejeezus out of me. At times the cave seems awfully dull. Like most Americans – like most people, I’d suspect – I prefer an idealized, romanticized version of nature rather than the real thing. Think more Marie Antoinette’s manufactured “farm” than nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw.
But of course this is precisely Himmer’s point, this is where the second half of the allegory begins, and our dreamer awakes from his not-so-enchanted sleep of decades to find the beauty and wonder but more importantly, the sensation, the actual participation in life, that awaits him in the garden. Sensation not just pleasant, but also unpleasant; Finch’s allergies, rashes, injuries and bee-stings are all a cold bucket of water in the face of tranquilized life he’s been leading. He must use his brain, create his own entertainment rather than mindlessly absorb whatever’s on the television. Finch begins to wake up to life, not always idyllic (else why include rashes?) and we follow right along with him, thinking he’s found his true calling as a hermit. The man who was so lonely he created other lives to lead is finally enjoying true solitude and, progressively, self-reliance.
Or is he? Juxtaposed with the narrative is another story, a present-day mystery of sorts that is unsettling and deeply disturbing to Finch’s created wonderland. And this mystery, these strange happenings, begin to tear down the walls that we see Finch has built for himself. In fact, they tear down the very illusion that Finch is most proud of: that of his own self-reliance. Like all else, it becomes clear that this, too is a facade, a convincing fake like so much of the garden, like the domesticated lion and the hidden cameras. And it becomes clear that as much as Finch needed to exit the rat race, he needs something else that can never be replaced: other people.
And that is the genius, I think, of The Bee-Loud Glade. We believe the book’s simple allegory, until suddenly the allegory is complicated and everything we think we know has been turned upside down. We’re not sure what to root for or how Finch will finish out, and left paging through Thoreau to find the answer. But of course Steve Himmer is writing a very different book than Thoreau wrote, and in our fast-paced, everyone-connected-to-everyone modern lives, he clearly believes in slowing down without shutting everyone out. The life Finch has lived has been another kind of sleep, the dream of self-reliance, and to keep his Eden Himmer has forced him to confront the dishonesty that’s lived at the core of his most precious illusion.
The Bee-Loud Glade is a lovely allegory, packed with a sharp and biting message for those who would sleepwalk through its pages nodding and smiling. Himmer, of course, wrote this book with a great love of nature in mind. But anyone who reads this novel as no more than an ode to the plants and the animals has surely missed the bigger picture. Himmer seems to have written this book to wake all of us up, office drudge or chronic dreamer, and to warn us of the limited time we have and of the precious connections we miss when we never stop to think and reflect on the fallacies and follies of our making, the defenses we erect to keep the sharp sensation of real life from coming too close, maybe even drawing a little blood. It’s a reminder very much worth reading, as entertaining and beautiful as it is prescient.