When I spotted GOLDEN DELICIOUS on Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Millions Year in Reading: 2016” list, I was immediately intrigued. After reading her novel STATION ELEVEN, I was desperate for another tangled world that I could lose myself in. I’d read anything St. John Mandel wrote and by default, imagined myself enjoying anything she recommended. I’m happy to say I was correct to entertain that assumption.
With chapters that feel almost like vignettes, GOLDEN DELICIOUS weaves the lives of a wonderfully complex family into a landscape that is anything but ordinary. An unnamed character referred to as “____” lives with his parents and sister in a Massachusetts town called Appleseed, where stories are literally harvested and pulled from the soil. “These rows,” explains the Memory of Johnny Appleseed when “____” takes the Reader on a bike ride to the deadgroves, “are overripe. They need to be told today. . . This inky part here? You grab it and pull.”
The narrator’s mother has always remained adamant that language be kept out of the house, but when he is followed home one too many times by a hungry Sentence, he keeps it caged in his basement room, feeding, reading, and walking it daily.
Worries become literal, problems take on physical representations, prayers are thought and responded to like phone calls, questions shape themselves to be paid for and carried home. The world is filled with words: How do we use the ones we carry with us, and how do we interpret those thrown at us?
Sentence, the Reader, and the Memory of Johnny Appleseed seem to be the only ones there for “____,” whose mother has gone off to join the army of Mothers who protect the town, flying in a pack to other pages or even to the margins, erasing and rewriting as they go along. His sister, Bri—or the Auctioneer, as she likes to be called—has disappeared, possibly to attend auction school somewhere outside of Appleseed. His father is forced to take up a difficult job to earn meaning, eventually succumbing to “workhosis.”
Life for “____” started in silence and isolation; after he spent his first three years without uttering a word, his parents stuck him in “the Vox.” Trapped in a box piping constant sounds—repeating sentences, dispensing facts, spelling words—he learns to speak, only to be told a few years later that not everything is meant to be spoken; he’s sent to “quietschool,” where he must learn to filter his thoughts, drain them of meaning. As he moves through school, class subjects grow to include Complicated World, Days of Joy, What to Be Most Frightened Of, the History of Depression, and Gym.
The often cheeky, embellished perspective is an insightful visualization of the conflicting realms that exist in every layer of daily life, from the nuances of independent thought and societal collusion to the art of listening versus participating. Our thoughts can possess us, fill us with ideas and obsessions and seemingly take on lives of their own.
When the Reader disappears and the book is closed, “____” finds himself struggling to navigate the bindings of a story riddled with discontent, the whispers of an invasion of bookworms, and new holes in the page that lead to things unseen. Will the Mothers be able to rescue their story? Will “____”’s family recognize what it means to be present and loving?
Inventive, engaging, and imaginative, GOLDEN DELICIOUS manages to capture life’s eccentricities and dualities in a colorful manner that serves to question not just the order of the world, but the purpose of words themselves. This novel left me with a new appreciation for both language and human behavior.