A Review of Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner

I’ll do better than to tell you about a dream I had. I’ll tell you how it was to have this dream. But not before telling you how it was to recall having had it. Everything is everything.

To write an encapsulating review of this book is a bit daunting for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is the degree to which it wriggles and slips away as you try to analyze it. I mean this in a few ways: the influences, style, plot, and structure are all elusive when confronted directly. Pointing to these evasive components, in an attempt to begin coalescing a larger picture of the feelings that come across in this book, leads me to more helpful ways of expressing some of what I experienced during my initial read and then my reread.

Going through this book the first time was like stumbling around in a cave, reaching around in the dark for entrances to connected passageways or smaller adjacent chambers. Think of a cinematic representation of a party in a mansion, wherein our main character is armed with no map or foreknowledge of the layout of the property nor the purposes of each room were they to know where those rooms lay. Then imagine you start to realize that someone may have slipped something into the punch you had a half hour ago. Now switch out the mansion or cave system for the space-time continuum. This starts to approach how I felt through my first read of Hang Him When He Is Not There (Zerogram Press [US], 2021; Splice [UK], 2018).

From a passage about a third of the way through, we get a seemingly accurate summation of what I’m trying to describe: “I had seen, from reverse, the shadows of these long metal bars on the faces of actors within, in strange, short clips that seemed to have been discarded ends, senseless, like something extra-textual or subsidiary, from behind the scenes.”

The disorientation you feel as you begin each section of this novel is relatively unsettling on its own, but then this further compounds within most of the sections when you hit a sharp left turn to explore other narrative strands. When you begin to settle into a narrative style or voice, the rug is swiftly pulled out from under you as you are dropped into the next section, with seemingly no regard for your feelings of abandonment or closure. 

The opening section contains a meditation on the decrepit and decaying state of mind one is stuck in while waiting for death to come, and an enigmatic case of someone who finds a way to pull themselves out of this mental stupor. This is followed by a detailed overview of a ubiquitous yet incognito editor’s life: we see past major assignments, a complex family life, and a new assignment to edit for a Pynchon-level literary recluse. Later, we get glimpses of a couple’s slow disintegration under a bibliophile’s rampant obsession, two brothers staying with an acquaintance near a beach, a strange shut-in cult full of rage and confusion, and much more.

The book as a whole has a heavy, almost fatalistic feeling to it, sometimes even professing notions of fate, omens, and premonitions, and there always seems to be an ominous aura just beneath the surface of each narrative. Even with this overarching presence, there is a remarkable amount of humor tied in here and there. From a bird’s eye view, it almost seems like the witty or bright moments are used to keep you off balance for when the brutal moments commence.

One standout section that exemplifies some of the above feelings is as follows:

She asked me if everything was all right. I closed my book in confusion, dragged my eyeglasses down my nose so that I could see her better, and said yes, of course. Then she told me that I had been screaming for fifteen minutes. So I took my glasses all the way off and started to clean them on the sleeve of my robe. Me? Was she sure? She said my voice was unmistakable, and that this was not the first time she’d heard me screaming, but that it was the first time she’d decided to come down and stop it because on that day she was hosting a wake. It was true–she was wearing all black and lace and she looked like she took her mourning seriously. The dress, however, did not seem to fit her. She was awkwardly folded into it. Her skin was bunched up around her throat, sagging over the neckline like a bit of soft coral or a sad flower

As you move forward through the book, certain characters intrude again; sometimes the characters skip along the periphery, barely recognizable. You start to see more connections and patterns, sometimes not realizing you’ve been reading about a character you’ve been introduced to previously until some blinding connection is laid out before you. Other times, you begin to suspect that there is a connection you’ve hit upon only to see, after closer scrutiny, that you’ve been trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. This book may be relatively thin, but there is a lot to untangle and analyze. The urge to reread is seductive and quite rewarding; on my second read-through, more things began to fall into place and there was more recognition of the rhymes and echoes of the plot.

Hang Him When He Is Not There is a gripping read and an incredible debut novel. I’m not sure who to compare Turner to, as he seems to have found an inventive style and voice all his own. I felt some of the lingering foreboding that I experience with Bolaño or Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, along with the reconciling piecemeal confusion of Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook. All this said, I look forward to seeing what Nicholas John Turner creates in the future.

Given that writing and reading are the reflection of each other (like throwing and catching, speaking and listening, or–for your own purposes–filming and viewing), the phrase “I am reading someone” (for example, “I am reading Günter Grass at the moment”) must imply a kind of uncreation (anticreation?) or else negation (obliteration?) of the subject. In any case it seems to imply the end of the subject (which in this case is the author), or at least the end of the re-creation of the subject (which must be the book itself).

So then, it’s the end of one of us at least.

The Collidescope is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will earn a small commission if you click through those specific links and make a purchase.

Dylan Lackey works in IT by day and voraciously consumes literature by night…and by day. He graduated with a bachelor’s in finance but has always had a passion for reading and literature. He enjoys writing short stories and poems in his free time as well and has read some of his poems at various open-mic nights.

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