I somehow ended up reading two books about deer at the same time: Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel, The Deer. After striking a doe on a lonely road at night, Carrera’s narrator, Henry Haverford, fumbles with his coat, wipes snot from his nose, and tries to recount the previous moments behind the wheel. The book travels back much further into the past, instead, and the timeline between Haverford’s life before the crash and the moment he hits the deer collide. The Deer opens in the immediate wake of the accident. Readers are immersed in a state of shock that never fully resolves as Carrera’s deer becomes more than bewildered visions in the nearby woods, like Tokarczuk’s deer—it becomes a vision capable of causing great distress in human communities. The Deer introduces the animal as the impetus for psychological dives and detours that dip into the narrator’s family history as he grapples with the cymbal crash of the accident and reverberations that spread across the story. Where Tokarczuk’s novel unfolds in a linear fashion through the voice of an unreliable narrator, Carrera’s narrator grasps at his own floundering continuity after the encounter.
The accident on the highway shatters more than the body of the doe and the fender of the car. It also disrupts our expectations of traditional narrative. There are multiple ways to read The Deer, but the most pleasurable way is to read the novel like a narrative piece of music. Once Haverford hits the doe, Carrera drops the needle into the record groove of psychological cacophony. Tuneful descriptions give way to uncanny musical interruptions lodged into otherwise quiet events. The act of eating a tomato invites the percussive sounds of drumming and shattered glass. Haverford’s dead father, reduced to ash, still thrums inside the urn. Haverford’s environment and his sense of time become less dependable as the arrangement of The Deer unfolds.
Right away, it is clear that Carrera’s story follows the structure of a concept album with a clear distinction between Side A and Side B. Chapters are divided into tracks that loosely conform to the conventions of the novel. The Deer can be disorienting, but it is meant to reflect Haverford’s bizarre experience with time. The more The Deer ascends in tone, the more the reader is thrown off the precarious ledge of continuity. Often, the vignette style of the scenic action is well underway before the reader notices the shift in characters or surroundings. All becomes layered, a symphony of instruments that beat out of time. We know very little, and what we do know remains discordant. In one of many recursive scenes with the highway patrol cops, who continue to distort what might have been a minor vehicular incident into familial guilt, Haverford experiences time like a record skipping:
“Mr. Haverford, did you hit something?”
“Well, I—” One of the men drops his gun. It clangs on the door of the interrogation chamber.
“I woke up by the side of the road and a man in a peaked cap was asking me questions.”
I lean back in the chair. Handcuffs jingle on my wrist.
“And why were you coming back to town, Mr. Haverford?”
“My father died.”
The man puts his leg up on the chair. “And how was the funeral, Mr. Haverford?”
“It hasn’t happened yet.”
“But Mr. Haverford,” says the first man. “We already went.”
Part of Carrera’s mystery is carried along by the prose style, which reflects back the surrealism of the Beat poets and the compositions of John Cage. There are full rests within the text, syncopated dialogue, long and sustained passages without a breath in between. More than a story, The Deer begins to read like a trip to the avant-garde orchestra, where the lines between structure and play, plot and sidebar, sound and meaning, are too closely enmeshed to distinguish where each ends and begins. By the time the book flips to Side B, having just reached the end of a tense and energizing Side A, everything we thought we knew has changed.
It is this structure that makes Carrera’s debut novel an exciting start to a writing career rooted in sonic experimentation. The Deer is at its most propulsive when Carrera’s characters bring us closer to the text, and the role music plays in memory, guilt, and desire:
Father turns back and smiles and lays his fingers on the keys of the piano but can’t remember, can’t remember the words and he screams at me, me who is sitting in my rocking chair sketching the clock with no hands, me who tells him to stop stabbing the paper, to stop making such violent scratches into the paper don’t you see the pencil bleed and the squeak of a dying machine that trembles […]
Through Carerra’s own frantic markings on the page, the prose trembles towards a synchronization that rings out clearly from the novel in a surprising turn from obfuscation. For readers who struggle through experimental texts, the moment is welcomed.
The most compelling thing about The Deer is the way in which Carrera is able to hold on to a variety of experimental approaches to text, narrative, and sound. Characters make noticeable forays into their own sonic pleasures, using sound as vehicles to drive towards their ultimate wants. In Tokarczuk’s novel, when the pieces of the mystery fall tightly into place, the reader feels rewarded for following all intersecting lines to the end. Carerra’s conclusion also provides a final harmonization on the echoing past that reverberates across the pages, and a deeply satisfying meta-analysis on structure and time that doesn’t solve the mystery altogether, but embraces the nature of using language to explore intersections between memory and loss. It makes one, all the more, wish to begin the record again.
By Dashiel Carrera
Dalkey Archive Press
Published September 13, 2022
Annie Raab writes fiction, essays, and art reviews. Her work has appeared in The Southampton Review, Sculpture, The Pitch, Cream City Review, Chicago Arts Writers, and more. She lives in the Midwest and on a sailboat.