Hollow Bones: A Review of Alan Heathcock’s 40
40. Alan Heathcock. MCD, August 2, 2022.
As a freshman in college, shouting to be heard in the bowels of a fraternity, I began the first round in an endless argument that has continued, with waxing and waning regularity, ever since. The specifics change, but here I am, 12 years later, still yelling that we have to care about other people, even those we don’t know, even those whose struggles we are safe from sharing. Living in a staunchly blue state, I received my advance reader’s copy of 40 three days after the US Supreme Court confirmed what we had known was coming for weeks – in a 6-3 decision, Dobbs v. Jackson overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, stripping the right of bodily autonomy and choice from individuals and placing it in the hands of the state, with other vital rights next on the list. To begin a book about a radical religious coup in a country where such a threat is barely fictional is the kind of immediate relevance that puts a book on the map. Yet, despite the almost prophetic timing and Alan Heathcock’s incisive prose, the characters and plot feel hollow.
40 is the story of Mazzy, a young soldier in a near-future America plagued by earthquakes, floods, environmental destruction, and the ever-growing power of the elusive Jo Sam, a religious leader whose armed congregation begins culling non-believers and abducting children, including Mazzy’s younger sister. After she miraculously survives an attack that somehow grants her angelic wings, Mazzy joins Jo Sam’s religious uprising in an effort to save her sister. Her wings are seen as a gift from God, the crater she pulled herself from a sign of her worthiness. Before her wings, she was a faceless grunt in the army; after, she’s heralded as a savior and paraded about in white robes with gold trim. Mazzy as Seraphina is the perfect vessel for the machinations of Jo Sam, his proof to those who follow him that God is on their side.
As I read 40, Heathcock’s first full-length novel, I thought of that first argument and the philosophy major who challenged me. One particular line of his has stayed with me, and I found myself reflecting on it as I followed Mazzy in her quest to rescue her sister: “I don’t give a damn about minimum sentencing laws” – we were arguing about prison abolition – “I’m too busy caring about the people in my life for whom I can enact actual change.” And like that philosophy major, Mazzy’s singular focus is to care about those few who are closest to her, her kidnapped sister and her sorta-kinda lover, Dewey.
Heathcock’s prose is haunting, and the crisp book I received is now tattered with dog-eared pages, stars and hearts and exclamation points crammed in the margins, a testament to the beauty of his words. “This world of storms and war,” Mazzy thinks, “required time no longer be measured in years or months, the calendar marked instead by increments of change.” It’s no surprise that Heathcock’s first book, Volt: Stories, was touted as one of the best books of 2011 by Salon, GQ, and the Chicago Tribune. The imagery of a fallen country and broken people is effectively devastating, and the stage is set for a critique of the flashy, need-to-be-seen attitude that permeates our chronically online culture. But all of it feels misplaced when juxtaposed with cookie cutter narcissists and a hollow protagonist.
For all the rich potential of her wings, Mazzy is an empty, flat character who appears to exist only for Heathcock to flex his love of metaphors. The other characters are constantly moved to soliloquy in Mazzy’s presence; when the angel isn’t shaking with a fever (which she comes down with no fewer than four times in the book) or lamenting that the only thing she cares about is her sister, she is relegated to standing still through paragraphs of dense, metaphorical quotes. The nefarious plot whose mystery propels the book is itself revealed through a monologue directed at Mazzy, a speech that lasts almost an entire chapter.
By the end of the book, I was irritated with Mazzy and her centrist platitudes that both sides were equally wrong, her cavalier attitude about the plight of others, her desire to care for only a few other people. Her character felt empty, hollowed out until neither personality nor agency remained. There were chapters that I could only wade through, a sucking swamp of metaphors needlessly difficult to parse. Certainly Heathcock was trying to say something, I just couldn’t decipher what exactly my takeaway was meant to be. Instead, I felt like shaking Mazzy, sitting her down like that philosophy major all these years ago, and reminding her that we all have the capacity to care for others. And if we have angelic wings, perhaps a direct line to God, a god, any god, our capacity to care for others should only increase. “It’ll never end,” Mazzy says, commenting on the human desire to survive above all else, no matter the cost and damage it requires. As I closed the book, all I could think was: not when people like you won’t open their eyes.
hvnly is a recent graduate in the PNW. Her work allows her to justify reading and watching science fiction of all kinds, and her passion for the genre and its ability to help sculpt the future gives her plenty to think and write about. Bored with hopeless pessimism, hvnly advocates for radical community care as a tonic necessary for change. She lives with a small goblin, a small dog, and a large dog. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for reviews; the author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.