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(CreateSpace Independent Publishing)
Although Collin Dodd’s new novel Watershed takes place in the near future of the United States, it would be more accurately described as a funhouse distortion of the present, blending the ever-encroaching surveillance of the digital age with a biblical battle for souls. “Illegal is only another word for expensive,” remarks one character, succinctly defining the amoral dog-eat-dog world in which she lives. Watershed revolves around two protagonists, Norwood and Raquel. Norwood is a formerly sought-after sculptor who fell from grace after refusing to compromise his artistic integrity. Raquel has become an escort after a lifetime of abuse and bad men. They meet when Raquel is ejected from the private airplane of a mysterious client and parachutes into the path of Norwood’s truck. The two are drawn to each other immediately, but their life together is thwarted by Raquel’s client, an obscenely wealthy and conniving man named Hurley who is possessed by a demon named Petronious. This might sound like a cheesy horror movie plot, but Dodds weaves the supernatural element into the book remarkably well. To make matters more complicated, Raquel is pregnant with Hurley’s child, and he will stop at nothing to get control of the infant.
As Norwood and Raquel seek to evade Hurley, it is useful that Norwood is a Ludlite, part of an off-the-grid subculture. Their name is a reference to the 19th century British Luddites, who violently opposed the technologies of the Industrial Revolution. The Ludlites, similarly, refuse to own cell phones or use the Internet, and they live in self-contained communities on the margins of society and legality. This is a world plastered in “video walls,” where parolees must undergo electronic chips being implanted under their skin, where all information—however personal—is for sale. In this version of America, refusal to live on the grid is taken as a threat, and the Ludlites live in constant warfare with the state. The Ludlites, mostly young people, sabotage cell towers as quickly as the phone companies can build them. In return they are harassed and arrested. In order to track down Raquel, one of Hurley’s minions employs a software called the Panopticon System, which allows her to see every message that Raquel sends over text and social media. At times this social critique can feel a bit heavy-handed, but it becomes more engrossing as the plot picks up.
The novel starts slowly due to a surplus of exposition, often in the form of convoluted dialogue. Norwood explains the Ludlite lifestyle to Raquel:
It’s easier because abundant information never has a chance to mean anything, because we’re all better off at least trying to be human beings, instead of allowing ourselves to be reduced to pixel-tumors in an inescapable global network.
It’s an elaborate speech, unlikely to come from a road-weary snake dealer talking to the beautiful woman he just met. In another instance, Norwood’s roommate, a construction worker named Crosby, complains that his non-Ludlite coworkers “donated half their brain to this whole world about which only the most predictable things can possibly be said.” The phrase “about which” is so grammatically formal that it sounds more like something uttered by Winston Churchill than a blue-collar nonconformist. The narration, as well as the dialogue, tends to be contrived. In one early scene, a receptionist is described in this way: “a meticulously groomed black man, big but meticulously cheerful.” Leaving aside the uncomfortable implication of juxtaposing neatness with blackness, examples likes these indicate that the book should have been more meticulously copyedited.
Watershed is also hard to get into due to its shaky representation of women—again, largely a problem toward the beginning. In the first fifty-six pages, there are no less than three descriptions of Raquel’s breasts, one of which is a closely observed shower scene. The breasts belonging to the female antagonist, Tyra, also merit a mention. Wilhelmina, a morally dubious information monger, escapes such sexualization, probably because she is transgender and is referred to in the narration as “he,” “she,” “man,” and “woman” seemingly at random. All of this is especially tone deaf, if not hypocritical, considering that the novel is a criticism of an oppressive society.
The first section of Watershed centers on a “ceremonial re-destruction” of the World Trade Center. In this America, the twin towers have been rebuilt, and in lieu of the death penalty, a group of convicted terrorists are sentenced to recreate the suicide attack in a spectacle of confused patriotism. The real reason for the event is not patriotism, but a web of alliances among business interests that stand to make money from the chaos. On the eve of the staged attack, all of New York watches in fascination; for some it’s a moment of catharsis, while others are left cold by the way that reality has become manipulated. Hurley muses:
This little show is a lot like pornography—an enhanced reenactment of a once-important thing … it’s nothing more than a dim, sad reminder of the last event they really cared about the last time they really thought they knew what they hated.
It’s not exactly naturalistic dialogue, but it is an interesting idea. Patriotism, like virtual reality, is just a façade, a way to conjure genuine emotion in a world governed by money and power. This becomes a central question of the novel. After the tower has fallen, after institutions like state and ideology have become corrupted, how do we continue to feel? How do we continue to love and create and make art in a world where every fight is to the death and nothing is familiar?
For Raquel and Norwood, the answer is one as old as America: go West. Hurley pursues the lovers and unborn child through Idaho and Nevada, a lawless and strange place for these urban easterners. Underlying the recreation of the American dream is a more primal narrative. Raquel’s baby, born just after midwinter and fathered by a man of godlike power, is seen as something of a messiah. Demonic forces compel Hurley to seize the baby, while in the Idaho Ludlite town where the little holy family seeks refuge, the community leader also becomes obsessed with the child, claiming that he will lead the Ludlites to a greater purpose.
After the characters leave New York, the novel becomes much more plot-driven. Dodds abandons the tedious character-driven dialogue, and the main conflicts emerge, leaving him free to concentrate on what he does best: physical description and action. Dodds builds suspense masterfully. In one scene in particular, an inexperienced hit man waits hours for his first victim to arrive. His fear grow to panic that culminates in the kill, and his animal terror oozes from the text. In another wonderful and gruesome scene, a character goes to an illegal clinic to get a government-planted chip removed from her arm. The violence is raw, brutal, and ubiquitous in the world of the novel.
When all the loose ends start to come together, and the various characters’ paths cross for the final showdown, it is truly satisfying. There are two ingenious plot points that shouldn’t be spoiled for potential readers, but which allow Raquel and Norwood to turn the tables on Hurley and become the hunters instead of the hunted.
It is also in the very end of the book that the most captivating character emerges: a pathetically sweet garbage sorter from New Jersey, Lee is roped into the action by accident. Unlike most of the rest of Watershed’s cast, he is not rich, sexy, violent, or clever. His presence reminds readers of the human messiness and emotion that exists within the fight between good and evil.
By contrast, Norwood and Raquel are sympathetic, but are not interesting or human enough to be compelling. Neither has significant personal relationships outside of each other. Neither has any quirks or oddities that would make them remarkable. In the novel’s first book, Dodds give the reader hints of Raquel’s depressive personality and Norwood struggles with his ruined artistic career, but as the plot picks up, these threads are abandoned.
Watershed’s plot and worldbuilding are solid and often thought-provoking, but the shaky prose and characterization make it a disappointment.
- Rachel Hertzberg