Author: John Englehardt
A Bloomland of Fabulist Realism: On John Englehardt’s Bloomland
Review by Carling Ramsdell
John Englehardt’s debut novel, Bloomland, is about immediate trauma—a school shooting, a loss, and college experience in general. The experiences of the novel’s three main characters—Eli, Eddie, and Rose—are so visceral and powerful that the characters must distance themselves to fully understand their emotions. Bloomland is equal parts detached and present.
Bloomland is Eli’s story, the story of a young man who walks into the Ozarka University library with a semi-automatic rifle, opens fire, and kills twelve people. Eli goes through his troubled past, his mother’s death, his high school years fraught with anger and suicidal ideation; through the shooting, his subsequent arrest, and the details of his life in prison. The primary setting of Bloomland is a college campus in Arkansas, but Eli finds college life overwhelmingly disappointing. He laments, “it was supposed to provide a social milieu of comfort and friendship. [He] imagined it as some bloomland of romance and psychological growth.” Rather, Ozarka is a bloomland for descriptions and people so real, that they are impossible.
Bloomland is also Eddie’s story, the story of a grieving English professor, a man who has lost his wife at Eli’s hand. Eddie takes readers through his relationship with Casey, and we grow to love her as Eddie does. We savor the small details about her, like the way she frequently wears loud purple tights after her students comment “‘Worst fashion sense ever!’” Eddie’s story is the story of a loss, of the stages of grief fully realized.
Bloomland is Rose’s story, the story of a girl reinventing herself again and again. The story of a girl whose life is ravaged by storms—natural and human.
But Bloomland does not only belong to Eli, Eddie, and Rose. Their stories are in second person, filtered through the lens of Dr. Steven Bressinger, a professor of Eli’s and a friend of Eddie’s. He directly addresses Eli, Eddie, and Rose, detailing their lives in a simultaneously confrontational and distant you. He tells them their own stories and puts himself in their shoes to the point where he becomes almost omniscient. But Steven cannot be omniscient. He drops the first person I seemingly randomly throughout the novel, harsh and sudden reminders of how distant he is and how biased. Steven’s view is an appropriate distance for a novel that so deeply delves into the mind of a school shooter. We suddenly remember that we are not Eli, that this is not happening, and we are grateful.
Somehow, what makes Bloomland so aggressive is the way it deals with dissociation, not only in its point of view, but in its imagery. The characters themselves are grounded with uncomfortably real and familiar details. Eli writes fiction about a boy wishing to become a “‘tortoise man’” so he can feel loved and understood by “an unpopular fat girl” and about “a pharmaceutical salesman in New York who wants to kill his vain girlfriend so he can love her.” Eddie, after finding out about the shooting, convinces himself that Casey is dead as he sprints home, hoping “she answers the door in her pajamas.” When Rose reinvents herself the first time, after a tornado has literally torn apart her family, she works “at the Baskin Robbins in the mall” and uses her “4-H leadership experience to qualify for a poultry science scholarship at Ozarka University.”
It is the experiences of these familiar, real-world, relatable people that feel magical. After the tornado, Rose finds her grandmother, “just a wad of disorderly gray hair, her body half-covered by a sheet of particleboard.” Rose pulls her out and dusts her off, but her grandmother does not respond to her touch. When a police officer finds Eli’s mother after she has been in a car wreck, he sees “a body so crushed it looks inside out, uncreated. He realizes that…steam is actually coming from [her] still-warm insides…and for a moment he watches as it floats away and blends into the early morning fog.” Eli loses a Dusty, a pet dog, to a mysterious family who keeps a large menagerie of pets—“pygmy goats, llamas, giant rabbits, chow chows. The animals just appear, wander haplessly around their yard for a month, then vanish.” When Eli’s father asks him to see if his new pet belongs to these strange people, Eli knocks on the door and asks, “‘Is this your dog?’ They let Dusty in and say, ‘Thanks.’”
The characters’ pasts are steeped in fantasy. Death’s impact shifts as corpses are cloaked in poetry. A pet dog vanishes, her fate left entirely open. The traumatic is so intensely detailed that it can’t be real.
Bloomland emulates the way we all process trauma. The most significant losses, the events that hit closest to home, are the ones that seem the least real. Yet the imagery in these moments is realistic. The transition into the dreamlike is natural. Bloomland is a perfect mix of realism and fabulism, of confrontation and remoteness.
Carling Ramsdell is a Creative Writing and Publishing & Editing student at Susquehanna University with a minor in Museum Studies. She is a freelance writer of children’s books, an editorial assistant for Flock literary magazine, and spends her free time volunteering in the museums and historic houses of northern Virginia. You can find her work online in The Sanctuary Magazine.