Some of our best literary characters, such as Adrian Veidt in Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Jay Gatsby, fall from grace due to their idealism being overtaken by bitterness and calculating utilitarianism. Their perspective is lost and therefore so is the world they are striving to achieve. What made them so compelling at first was that their idealism was overly optimistic, but the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. This is the plight in Greg Jackson’s debut novel, The Dimensions of a Cave. The book centers the profession of journalism through its main characters and the philosophy that the journalist’s only goal is to tell the truth. The cynic may mock—if only gently—the sincere approach to the realities of “truth-telling.” It cannot be denied that Jackson’s idealism is done with eyes wide open. The challenge to readers is if we can imagine a world formed by optimistic idealism, despite pragmatically flawed human beings.
In the frame story, Quentin gathers with friends from college, who all share the same feelings, “…fervor that flirted with the religious, was that a single, knowable reality existed and that it was every last person’s right to know what this reality was.” Quentin begins to recount the story within the story and the reader is swept away, much like his colleagues. What ultimately unfolds is a twisting investigative thriller that ends in another reality, or in this case, virtual reality. Though Quentin’s ideals weather the worst during his years of reporting local corruption and county politics, he finds his hope in a protégé, Bruce. Years go by and when Bruce goes MIA on a war reporting assignment, Quentin is run through with guilt. Yet, Jackson’s goal in the narrative isn’t so much to have the two men reunite as it is to have the journey through a heart of darkness force Quentin to grasp the consequences of not only the impact of his work but his choices over the years—the compromises he has gladly made, only to strong-arm others to serve the “truth.” Summed up best after a conversation with his contact in the capital: “You hate government bureaucrats until you meet one.” These experiences are visceral to the reader.
The Dimensions of a Cave is intensely mesmerizing, thanks to the rich prose and deft use of transitions to seamlessly jump between settings, reflection, dialogue, and back again. Yet, the majority of the novel exists as pseudo-philosophical work that seeks to interrogate epistemology, solipsism, aesthetics, our interaction with technology, and, existentially, the human condition. An example of how this is encapsulated:
“‘What does crime become—rape, torture, death—when it’s a purely psychic, disembodied experience? What can the human mind withstand when the body is kept right and hale? There are crimes we don’t even have words for yet. Crimes of the psyche, the spirit. That’s what we don’t know.’ ‘And the soul?’ I said… ‘Now you’re getting it.’”
Quentin’s conversations such as this consistently become tangled, double entendre’d references. They do show off impeccable and precise rhetoric, but they cannot move past the slightly stilted format, and they take a confusing turn when they last longer than half a dozen pages. They even tread closer to being mere thought experiments than true conversations between characters. Helpful to bring the reader along in examining idealism, but feeling monotonous as Quentin has similar or mirrored conversations with each new lead he meets. Journalists must talk to people, but the line of inquiry becomes staler the deeper the reader goes. Instead of finding shadows playing on the walls, the reader is spoon fed basic principles of belief.
All of this does not discount the way optimism, even based in an agnostic materialism as Quentin confesses, weaves through and offers hope. Not only to the protagonist but to the reader as well. The realities of journalism, while quickly summarized in the narrative and put aside in order to avoid closer inspection, lend the sense of having ordinary people struggling to find meaning in an otherwise cruel and senseless world. The brutality that is exhibited by governments, groups, organizations, and individuals is enough to make the most jaded person distraught if not collapse in despair. Quentin leads his colleagues and thereby the reader through these harrowing narratives in order to have us face up to why this is worth it in the first place. Is truth, a concept that fluidly negates most definitions and conceptions, even changes based on belief systems, the ultimate aspect of our lives? Or does it only give a fleeting sense of control? It is increasingly apparent that it is the only thing for Quentin to grab onto amidst the upheavals and conflicts of recent decades.
This sense of control through idealism deteriorates further as Quentin nears his goal of finding Bruce after he enters the VR environment. When it becomes clear how nefarious the overlapping realities truly are, Quentin himself has a hard time remembering why he originally entered or that this life of his, simulated in the digital world, is not his actual, physical life. It would be the ideal place to live out ideals that are otherwise out of reach, but what he finds is that even virtual reality retains the same faults as its creators. And despite those flaws, Quentin also holds himself back: “I couldn’t remain in this tomb as Bruce had attempted to do, this endless lucid dream. I had no interest in the imperium of solipsism, the loneliness of a god.” The tension that drives him in the real world doesn’t exist in this virtual space. It only creates shadows on the wall, rather than revealing anything true.
Luckily, Quentin is able to climb out of the Cave and back to the real world. It is in those final pages that Jackson cements his farewell to the reader: “We see in black-and-white of printed lines, typeset shadows across gray pages. And what then could prepare us for the color, the blinding light of realities that have no place in the daily catalog of commonplace event?” Even for journalists, the truth seekers, with their penchant for idealism and optimism, pale in the face of what a lived life can look like. It might be trite to highlight the lesson, but it brings a satisfying conclusion to Quentin’s story, who survived on the idea that facts win the day. Instead, he discovers it to be dust in the face of greater technologies and certain individuals who might be cast adrift. Yet, it gives Quentin a direction for the first time, since losing Bruce. He knows what to do with the time given to him.
Taking on complex themes and whittling them down to the core message is not an easy feat, nor is the amount of research that went into building the foundation that this book rests upon. Jackson emerges as a fascinating writer willing to engage with the zeitgeist of the day, without falling for the fickle trends. Centering his debut firmly on resonant values and themes will ensure The Dimensions of a Cave carves a new spot in contemporary canon.
The Dimensions of a Cave
By Greg Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published October 24, 2023