Jessica's Reviews > Meeks

Meeks by Julia Holmes
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's review
Aug 02, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2010
Read on January 01, 2010

In her impressive debut novel, Meeks, Julia Holmes examines the institutions of marriage, family, and social order amid a satirical dystopian setting. Through alternating narratives expressed in lucid prose, Holmes shows readers a society much like our own, where disappointment looms beneath a saccharine sweet surface.

Holmes intertwines the stories of Ben and Meeks, two citizens of a seemingly perfect and orderly world where everyone fits in their designated place. She crafts a curious landscape that is evocative of classic dystopian literature without being derivative. Close inspection reveals an authoritarian society that maintains a comically happy façade through strict social regulations.

Ben and Meeks struggle to meet those social demands. Ben faces his last permitted year of bachelorhood before he must either obtain a wife or face a lifetime of forced labor. Meeks is a delusional but innocuous bum unable to face reality. Their stories culminate at the annual Independence Day commemoration, where society celebrates social obedience and castigates dissonance.

Holmes keeps the plot minimal, relying on the characters’ memories and introspection to build the story. Her fluid and affecting prose reads elegantly, skillfully conveying the characters’ progression of feelings and central desires. Ben observes a typical scene of a typical day and envies the life that, for him, seems unattainable:

On the other side of the bachelor’s hill, families were enjoying the day. Children swung between their parents’ hands. Fathers decked out in kind and modest sweaters. Men on the other side of the great divide, men who had made it, men who had seen the beacon and plunged and who had made it. And now they idled justly in their summer sweaters, and there were children who worried about them and women who worried about them, and who, behind closed doors, comforted them as if they were boys.

For much of the story, Holmes employs satire and dark humor to convey the book’s themes. A close look at the absurdly wholesome society exposes a gluttonous obsession with food and fixation on fashion. Superficial pleasures and concerns hide the underlying absurdity of the social oppression. In a move that forces readers to examine our society’s position on marriage, Holmes flips traditional stereotypes by placing the pressure to wed on men. Unmarried men are consigned to life as laborers, prisoners, and executioners. Ben recalls a scene from his childhood:

When he was a boy, Ben and his mother had watched the failed bachelors being marched down the street at the end of each summer, on their way to the factories, to the work crews in the park, to the river’s edge, to the prison. The men in gray smocks shuffled past, and boys and girls threw apples at their feet, and rowdy men jumped down into their yards and shouted, “Throw out the trash! Throw out the trash!” until their wives cajoled them back up onto the porch, and Ben’s mother rested her hands lightly on his shoulders, and said, “This is our shame.”

As the book progresses, Ben’s behavior and attitude become more preposterous. His growing obsession with finding an appropriate suit in order to fulfill his social requirement spoofs the pressures we put on ourselves to conform to inane social demands.

By adding darkly comedic elements, Holmes challenges traditional ideology without being imperious. Ben accepts his role in life without question, becoming so fixated on fulfilling his obligation that it results in paranoia and crime. The pressure to take a wife and start a family by a legally enforced deadline signifies the pressures we perceive in modern society to follow a certain path. No one in Ben’s world appears happier or better off due to their cookie-cutter lifestyle, but very few take a stand to question the norm.

Holmes takes a soberer and more elegant tone to examine family relationships, an extension of the marital obligation. Throughout the story, she highlights the expectations and disappointments children and parents feel for each other. Meeks and Ben fondly remember their mothers as resilient, tender women, and they struggle to fulfill their mothers’ hopes for them. As one character tellingly wonders, “All our relationships deform us (i.e., make us ‘human’), but how do these loving creatures (our mothers) survive the person-imploding disappointments of their sons?”

They don’t show the same affection for their fathers. Ben’s father abandons him and Meeks fails to accept his. He reflects, “What a heartbreaking disappointment a father could be when one held him up against the beauty and complexity of the world that existed before him.” Holmes illustrates that society cannot issue instructions on how to construct a model family. Despite their society’s strict, practical regulations, these families ultimately fall apart.

Holmes subtly warns readers that simply satisfying perceived social responsibilities, rather than embracing genuine ambitions and desires, can only lead to disappointment and failure. Her message is simple and beautiful: live the life you want.

Holmes tackles these weighty topics with charm and polish, combining the right mix of humor and sincerity. Strange, surreal, and challenging, Meeks is a strikingly compelling examination of the social and personal demands we impose upon ourselves.
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