REVIEW: House of Coates by Brad Zellar

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Broken. Busted. Lonely. How a disruption in socially-constructed rules of masculinity make a man no longer a man. I open with those words and that statement because of this: In the mixed-media novel, House of Coates, author Brad Zellar asks, “Have you ever had the feeling that there wasn’t a soul left on the planet that remembered your name or face or the sound of your laugh? That was a Lester question, and his answer was yes.”

Yes, because loneliness makes you helpless, makes you less of a man. So what is it like to be a “dude” who embodies an unaccepted form of masculinity? To be pushed to the margins of society, because you became a living example of loneliness? Let’s look at Zellar’s main character, that lonely man named Lester B. Morrison, to understand this:

“Something had happened to Lester once upon a time. A series of things, actually, that had the cumulative power of a cataclysm. That’s not always the way it is with broken men, but that’s the way it was with Lester. He seemed to have been born with what the Portuguese call saudade, a sort of eternal, metaphysical homesickness. He was lonely, but it wasn’t the loneliness of a man sitting around bored and waiting for someone to call. Lester had an instinctive understanding of the difference between apart and a part, and knew that the syllabic bridge that somehow made belonging out of be and longing was a linguistic deception that was nonetheless incapable of obliterating the terrifying distance between such puzzling and perilous words. The world is one sprawling racket of collaboration, and there are those who don’t carry the collaboration gene.”

Lester’s story of loneliness ultimately shows what happens to a fractured form of masculinity, how it matures as the pages are turned, growing from mere mention to a regular appearance, and eventually becoming a central character. Preceding Lester’s shift from out of the wings and into the center stage, spotlight ablaze, is a descriptive setting that incites the overarching theme of damaged gender expectations. Eventually, Lester emerges from that landscape and becomes loneliness embodied — a personified example of ostracized masculinity.

That’s Lester, and this is how Zellar brings life to him: by making language alive. Zellar’s inventive ways with words and craft techniques such as alliteration and metaphor, such as infusing the setting with emotions and using vivid imagery, House of Coates enlivens Lester and awakens that sense of isolation. Zellar also uses a bit of white space creates a stark tone, a type of hollowness. Brokenness and loneliness then ricochet throughout each sentence.

A feeling of movement within the setting is also key to this novel as Lester interacts with its desolation, “The poisons were making their way through two or three feet of snow and creating swirling scarves of steam in the freezing air.” The text also brings emotions to images; “Every house is a halfway house. Every adult is a vulnerable unit…Every dream has a giant eraser poised above it, just waiting to do its job.” House of Coates, in a way, becomes a testament to disappearing desires as it conveys how we interact with the intersection of language and empty space.

But there’s more. Two words: mixed media. Accompanying these language-born images are sixty-eight full-color photographs. Proceeding that previously quoted sentence about failed dreams, is a picture of a blue mattress shoved between a rock and a wall (interpretation: inaccessible comfort/crushed dreams), and another image of a descending blue stairway with a bare light bulb hanging above it (signifying bleak space). The photographer, Alec Soth, and Zellar’s story intermingle image and text to create the stark tone and vivid imagery that is the emotional core of this novel. The story echoes with loneliness and what it means to be fragmented. Shattered. Destroyed.

By using mixed media, the photographs bring an essential depth to Lester. Speaking about a dollhouse, Zellar says, [Lester] was drawn to that tiny and tidy little world. It looked so manageable, a refuge or sanctuary for the loneliness that was already growing in him…where he would be left entirely alone.” And then, as expected, a few pages later there is an out-of-focus picture of a dollhouse, its left side cut off so that a portion of it is not pictured. Through this dialogue between words and visual reflections, the theme of missing men reverberates throughout each photograph, each paragraph.

Ultimately, House of Coates isn’t about finding some cliché light at the end of a tunnel or a bare light bulb hanging at the bottom of a stairwell; it’s about “finding a way to live in the darkness.”

House of Coates

by Brad Zellar

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