What is beyond? Beyond the blindfold, or the doorway, or the forest. It’s the beyond that Josh Malerman is so good at keeping just out of sight. He proved as much with Bird Box, a viral debut novel that spawned a popular (and much-memed) movie starring Sandra Bullock. Its tale of creatures who shatter the mind when viewed by human eyes raised more questions than it answered, but it nevertheless offered the indelible, Lovecraftian thrill of imagining just what could possibly lie beyond the blindfold.
Malerman pulls off a similar trick, though in a much different way, with Inspection, again isolating his characters, who (again) don’t know what lies outside their confines. The setting is a school nestled in a copse of wintry pines, where 26 12-year-old boys—The Alphabet Boys, each named after a letter—live and learn under the eye of D.A.D., a garish authoritarian who commands a small army of armed guards and attack dogs. They’ve lived their whole lives here, having been told they grew on the trees outside their windows. Every morning, they’re subjected to inspections that determine whether they’ve come down with the myriad diseases—D.A.D. calls them vees, rotts, and placasores—that plague the outside world, the likes of which remain undiscussed and unexplored. But with The Recasting Years—D.A.D.-speak for puberty—upon them, things are changing. J feels it more than the others, and his budding curiosity is piqued by a mysterious figure he glimpses outside his window, as well as the loss of two classmates, A and Z, who haven’t been seen since they were sent to the school’s much-dreaded Corner.
That’s a lot of mythology to consume, especially in the book’s disorienting early chapters. Malerman builds a striking world, but he struggles to ease us into it, especially since, despite this being their story, only a few of the boys crystallize into layered characters. Credit that to a lack of action on their part, a listless focus on internal monologues, memories, and arguments that—for a while, at least—feel frustratingly circular. Malerman also allows us access to the thoughts of D.A.D., as well as those of Warren Bratt, a fiction writer paid to pen propaganda novels for the boys. It’s the latter who drives the early narrative, as the guilt he feels over his work prompts him to surreptitiously write a book that teaches the boys about the very thing they’ve been designed to avoid: girls. To raise boys with no knowledge of girls, D.A.D. believes, is to raise “the most enlightened, undistracted minds in the history of mankind.”
It’s all very high-concept, and to think too hard about the endeavor raises innumerable questions about its logistical realities. As he did in Bird Box, Malerman’s crafted an irresistible scenario that’s rich in possibility and thematic fruit. It’s easy to consider Fox News’ anti-immigration rhetoric while reading Inspection, for example, especially in how anchors like Laura Ingraham appear to find diversity incompatible with the American “way of life.” One can also consider the discussion of “etho-states” persevering in the more fringe parts of the internet, and how so many seem to believe in separation as the key to a greater humankind. Gender politics are also tucked between the lines of Malerman’s text, as D.A.D.’s experiment is riddled with the anxiety some feel in light of the amplified discussions regarding gender fluidity.
Malerman weaves these themes throughout his story, but he’s more concerned with need, shame, and how one’s desire can manifest in ways both beautiful and horrifying when raised in a culture of repression. His story really comes alive when it’s revealed that a separate school, one populated entirely with girls, exists at the opposite end of the pines. With that reveal, which comes far too late in the book, comes the giddy anticipation of just what exactly will happen when boy and girl meet in a world where neither had any idea the other existed. Some of Inspection’s most impactful passages come as K, an artist from the girls’ school, tries to make sense of the male body through her limited lens. Equally affecting are the vulnerabilities both characters manifest around each other, which adds a dose of universality that, despite the context, still reads as familiar.
There’s a lot clogging the surrounding pages, however, from red herrings to odd digressions to a backstory for D.A.D. that’s thin enough to make one wish the character remained as unknowable as Bird Box’s monsters. The ending, too, is a mess, but one so shocking and cathartic that its audacity might be enough to win you over. That’s true of much of Malerman’s work here; his prose works better in moments of frenzy or peril than it does in the quieter spells, if only for trading the ponderousness for propulsion.
Inspection operates more like a young adult novel than the trauma-laden Bird Box. Its coming-of-age arc and themes of self-discovery are tailor-made for inquisitive teens, as is its alien fascination with the opposite sex. In some ways, Inspection feels like an inverse of its predecessor: Where the latter confined us behind a blindfold, Inspection rips it off. That’s a neat trick, but Malerman would have been better off leaving more of this world in the beyond.