Sharp Edges of an Echo: A Review of Dashiel Carrera’s The Deer

Sharp Edges of an Echo: A Review of Dashiel Carrera’s The Deer

Justin A Burnett.

Under Review:
The Deer. Dashiel Carrrera. Dalkey Archive Press, September 2022.

A debut novel takes a risk when its demands are uncompromising. When a debut novel makes it onto Dalkey Archive’s publishing roster, its demands must nevertheless be worth taking seriously. This book’s demand is singular, but unwavering: read Dashiel Carrera’s The Deer with a willingness to get lost. 

This ride lacks the handrail of firsts and lasts. As Sterne, Cortazar, and many other great novelists have done, either is thrown out with or’s water to clear space for the copious all-at-once. No wonder Schrödinger’s paradox is a favored motif. One can feel the restless shimmer of simultaneity brimming beneath chapters built from sentences that break, appending clauses from thoughts originating elsewhere, a shattered way of writing and thinking often attributed to broken brains.

In Carrera’s words: “It is no use, you say. Some things just can’t be put in order again.”

Broken brains and also hungry hearts. Hearts pitted with (black) holes. 

Simply put, The Deer is not the simplest read. But the measure of a nonlinear narrative’s success is the degree to which its difficulties become admirable. In this case, there’s more to admire than lament.  

The Deer gathers sentences tangentially related in tone, color, and theme. Like music, or jazz to be specific, which is a common point of reference throughout. A related comparison would be to poetry. In fact, it’s ideal to have poetry in mind when approaching Carrera’s strophic paragraphs. They emerge from the dark to cross the stage like the sun before sinking again. Darlings of the darkness, flashes from lives unraveling. I suggest coming to this book prepared to read each paragraph with the intensity of a stanza. It should be treated like a collection of aphorisms or ghazals. It slows you down. It asks that you scan the landscape, observe the sky as it meets the word in a hidden communion on the horizon. That’s not a bad thing. 

The Deer isn’t easy to summarize. The practice may even be harmful: a car accident occurs that may have not been an accident involving a deer that may not have been a deer. Structurally, the novel is divided into two parts, the events of which may or may not, in the usual sense of the word, be related. Does that help? Is it best to lay out the plot like a string, or are labyrinths made for meandering? 

The novel has been labeled as horror. Perhaps this designation is apt, in that Carrera’s rhapsodic proliferation often gives way to deeply frightening imagery. I think it best, however, to bring to mind the cyclical temporality of trauma, the inability of the mind to let go of the object that has injured it, “the dream logic of the uncertain”. The glances here are always peripheral, furtive movements belonging to shadows rather than any fixed object. I’ll reiterate the image of the mythic labyrinth, an association highlighted by the fact that, in an exceptionally beautiful passage from what is called the “Old Book” in the second half, another myth, this one of Icarus, is mentioned directly. It’s true that labyrinths usually house monsters. Often, as the medieval moral fables of the labyrinth suggest, the monster is the mind. If there is horror to be had, it is the acute horror of subjectivity. 

The Deer undeniably has its weaknesses. Carrera’s sentences are often barbed, in a hurry to nowhere:

The last ray of sun through the trees is retreating fast. I watch it run along the tips of the bushes. The cold is creeping in. It smoothes my forehead; crisps my eyes. I pan the bushes of the valley, stretching into the darkness.

While this example, like many others, has a poetic beauty, the uniformity of the hard rhythms can become difficult to withstand. The ambiguity is relentless, sometimes frustrating. Mountainous echoes become clouds, and the rain that follows is frequently cold and punishing. There have been moments when I wasn’t sure I could weather it. There have been moments when I felt that Carrera could extend a warmer hand. But in another sense, there is only the pace brought to the novel by the reader. 

As I said, this novel demands a willingness to get lost. As the relentless pull to finish all things with speed and efficiency darkens every aspect of our lives—yes, even our reading, what reader can deny it?—aimless wandering is a virtue. Having arrived at the end, I am not certain I have found my way out. There are glimpses of a hidden structure in the final pages, even if the structure itself is a mechanism of mystification. And when I came to that moment of limited understanding, The Deer began to call again. Already I am imagining a re-read, and what more can a novel hope to accomplish?  

Justin A. Burnett is the author of The Puppet King and Other Atonements. He’s also the Executive Editor of Silent Motorist Media, a weird fiction publisher responsible for the creation of the anthologies Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, which was named best multi-author anthology of 2019 by Rue Morgue magazine, The Nightside Codex, and Hymns of Abomination, a tribute to the work of Matthew M. Bartlett. He’s currently writing a novel while living in Austin, Texas, with his partner and children. You can find him on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Alex Skopic. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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