In honor of that occasion, I’m finally doing something I don’t normally do and talk at length about a piece that has had a strangely parallel journey with my work work on Tulpa, or Anne&.
It may come as a surprise to some, but I don’t read many novels. When it comes to prose fiction, I tend to stick to collections of shorter works. Part of this is my general impatience as a reader. Another part is that the enjoyment I get from novels is not in what happens next, but in how the story and language enrich and expand my perspective. Unfortunately, few published novels are written with this sensibility in mind. Many novels seem more like frustrated films and TV shows than works that were meant to be read. So when I come across a piece of prose fiction that functions as a piece of prose fiction, I am often pleasantly surprised.
Which brings me to Dennis Upkins’ debut novel Hollowstone.
You can find a synopsis and reviews (and buy your own copy) on Amazon, so I won’t bore you by giving you both yet again.
Instead, I want to peel back the layers of Hollowstone to give you an idea of how it functions as a piece of literature – and my use of the term literature is quite deliberate. Upkins himself has said that The Great Gatsby was a huge inspiration for Hollowstone, and in its best moments, that influence shows. From the first page, it’s clear that Hollowstone is meant to be read. There are certain places in the novel where Upkins’ careful prose and powerful imagery is nearly poetic, giving the impression that the reader is meant to savor the language, not just breeze through it. It’s a true delight for a reader who enjoys reading for language as much as for story.
But there is more to Hollowstone than how it uses language. There are some intriguing structural elements as well.
Much like Harry Potter does for Hogwarts, Noah Scott acts as our entry point into the world of Hollowstone Academy. Although using the Everyman as the eyes and ears of the audience is a time-tested literary technique, Noah Scott is an interesting choice for a protagonist. Noah himself is not average. He comes to Hollowstone on a merit scholarship because of his musical gift, and he works hard at honing that gift. And yet, the things that make him extraordinary in our world render him invisible at Hollowstone. Upkins’ use of the first-person perspective gives texture and nuance to a character who, on the surface, would easy to overlook.
Speaking of characters, let’s take a closer look at Noah Scott.
As an outsider looking into this strange world of wealth, power, and decadence, Noah Scott is pitch-perfect. Besides his reserved nature and general nerdiness, what sets Noah apart from his peers at Hollowstone are his working class roots and straight-edge integrity. He embodies the American ideal that if someone is smart and works hard enough, they will succeed. This illusion is quickly shattered when he witnesses how, on more than one occasion, what matters most is not who you are and what you can do, but how much you have and who you know.
Yet Noah is far from a neutral observer. Part of what makes him interesting is the fact that he is capable of being a sanctimonious little shit. Rather than excuse or gloss over Noah’s tendency to judge others without understanding them, Hollowstone shows the consequences of what Noah – and the other characters – say, do, and believe. As a bildungsroman these elements give Hollowstone a maturity that is uncommon but welcome.
Oftentimes, YA fiction tends to try to shield readers from seeing those consequences, but Hollowstone maintains a faith in the reader’s ability to understand and accept them. When Hollowstone sheds a light on what really goes on beneath the surface of the lives of the privileged youths at Hollowstone Academy – teen pregnancy, bullying, drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, sexuality, and so on – it does so with a deftness that simply shows the world as it is instead of telling the reader what to think or what to do.
Weaving through all these issues is the recurring theme of friendship. Throughout Hollowstone, Upkins shows how true friends, at times even moreso than family, are crucial to facing moments of crisis. On more than one occasion, friendship meant the difference between overcoming adversity and succumbing to it. There is one incident in the novel where a character, feeling unloved and isolated, attempts to unleash their rage and despair upon everyone else.
Through this incident, and several others like it, Upkins suggests that our lives are shaped not only by our own choices, but by systemic and institutional powers. In Hollowstone, the structures of class, race, gender, and sexuality are not abstractions, but concrete realities people must contend with every day. This is a stark contrast to the rugged individualism popularized in most American fiction, where heroes succeed because they are heroes and thus are meant to succeed. The alternative narrative Hollowstone presents undoubtedly has its origins in Upkins’ own background. These distinctions naturally make their way into Hollowstone‘s voice, which sets it apart from your typical boarding school drama.
Besides being more interesting to read, Hollowstone reveals how important diversity is for maintaining the vitality of contemporary fiction. There are ripples for change both online and in print. People are talking about wanting to see more than the same types of stories from the same types of people. Mainstream audiences are growing weary of being spoon-fed the same cliché plots, characters, and settings. Underserved audiences are becoming more vocal about wanting to see themselves represented in what they watch and read. Hollowstone is but a single book, and Dennis Upkins just one author. But every great journey begins with a single step, and every great change starts with a small effort.
Hollowstone is an effort that should not be overlooked.
(*Historically Black College or University)