Stepan Chapman

Ministry of Whimsy Press / 256 pages / (June 25, 2012)

ASIN: B008EW468I

Is Naomi a brontosaurus? Is Eva an aged hispanic woman? Is Alex a sentient Jeep? If these are the only questions that plague you throughout The Troika, then you are several steps ahead of me. I’m not ashamed to admit when a book has bested me, and this one has. Either that, or it’s an ambitious experiment, run amok. I didn’t “get” it, or Chapman lost control. I’m willing to let the majority rule.

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Alex, Naomi, and Eva are bound together in some way it is impossible to untangle. They may or may not be any one of the three possibilities listed above; at any moment, they are likely to find their personas scrambled and awaken in another body. In a constant state of flux, they wander an endless desert, hoping to die.

Where did the three come from and how did they reach this purgatory? The answers vary with every shift in the wind. Life stories form and disintegrate faster than they can be assimilated. Just as it seems a reasonable past is being revealed, it is swept away as another lie, or a dream, or a wish.

Chapman plays with words like trick cards. It is useless to attempt to reason out the story, because his sleight-of-hand will leave you dangling helplessly. He surrounds each character with infinite layers of disguise and dares you to “find the lady.” Getting too close to the truth? He simply sheds another onion skin and allows the story to twist away.

Is it the nature of dreams or the evasiveness of reality that Chapman is juggling? His movement of the characters defies easy analysis. There is seldom a moment of relaxation, of having for an instant grasped the underlying facts. Too easily, he pulls the threads away and leaves the reader more perplexed than ever.

If it seems like masochism to plow on through The Troika, understand that it becomes no less a challenge to the reader than to the trapped creatures struggling to find the final answers. Stubborn insistence that life — that things — should make sense. It is part of the human condition to need to know.

Not knowing is the gnawing feeling that pulls the characters in The Troika toward madness and each other at the same rate it repels them. Not knowing what the #^%(& is going on keeps the reader racing through the novel. At the end — for characters and readers — there should be relief and resolution. There should be? Only if Chapman wants there to be; he is the god of this domain.

For a debut novel, The Troika is as ambitious as they come. Does it succeed? Perhaps, it depends on the reader. Is it “good”? Have you ever been mesmerized by something, fascinated, but not enjoyed it? Maybe because some tiny part of us suspects all of the experimentation and risks are really, well, crap, and we don’t want to be taken in.