Book Review: Bloomland by John Englehardt

Bloomland

John Englehardt

September 10, 2019

Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. When he stops shooting, twelve people are dead.

During our historical moment of political, social, and environmental instability, Bloomland by John Englehardt is a book covering topics tough to face but difficult to set aside. The novel is a page-turner, even when as readers we can already anticipate what we are in for—another school shooting with all its terrors. And yet, Englehardt’s novel approaches the fallout of sudden and irrevocable heartbreak in fundamentally innovative ways that are at once jarring and yet surprisingly effective at fostering empathy for villains and victims alike.

The novel follows the events surrounding a fictional university set in the American South. Readers experience this, at times emotionally overwhelming, story through three different characters: an undergraduate soon-to-be ex-sorority girl, a jaded English professor (who’s teaching style is one of “controlled outrage” against society), and the shooter himself. The reader is invited into each narrator’s perspective through the second person point of view, creating a sense of intimacy that goes beyond just immediacy—Englehardt’s style and approach is best likened to that of videogames or experimental indie films, in which gamers or movie audiences peer through another’s vantage point. This is, of course, ironic because critics of these mediums have often suggested that they desensitize fans. Some critics had even blamed them for Columbine and other school shootings.

Turning these criticisms on their heads, however, Bloomland asks us with its fiction to inhabit the bodies of Englehardt’s characters. Of course, this can be uncomfortable, being so closely aligned with say, the killer. But in our world of around-the-clock, distanced connection (via smartphones and social media), Bloomland both reflects back to us our modern society’s tinge of hollowness and supplants it, making readers feel with and for others:

…you’re into your second semester of college, and already it feels like some communal joke. Coming here was supposed to give you ideals to help navigate the seas of adulthood. It was supposed to provide a social milieu of comfort and friendship. You imagined it as some bloomland of romance and psychological growth. Instead, it has given you nights alone in a cinderblock dorm room.

Who among us hasn’t felt some similar sense of disconnection?

How can one person impact environmental sustainability when a good job in town is clipping chicken beaks at a factory, or when the path to financial security is majoring in poultry science? How does one feel empowered when as a young adult “you find that all your professors are burned out teaching assistants who give you worksheets, overuse Powerpoint, [and] speak in fake authoritarian voices?” In fact, the novel repeatedly cycles back to this notion, that the professors are powerless to really help their students. These professors find their curriculum “no longer befits contemporary students…who are job-focused [and] concerned about skyrocketing loan debt,” or they question their roles as instructors entirely and bemoan their own debt, powerlessness, and career immobility. Albeit the English professor has some of the most interesting sentences of the book: “You go home, pour whiskey into a tallboy, and grade papers until your marginal comments turn into surly acronyms and interrobangs.”

As readers, we are asked to answer difficult but vital questions. What kind of education do students need? And how can we stop the transformation of spaces of learning into spaces of violence? Bloomland imagines what it’s like to live inside a character’s experience and carries with it an insightful commentary about gun violence, modern society, and the solitary lives we all face one way or another.

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