Content warning: gun violence in a school (there are dark themes and drug use throughout, but the most shocking, triggering event is a school shooting that is mostly averted but could be very triggering)
Rob Benvie is the author of two previous novels, Maintenance and Safety of War. In addition to writing prose, he also writes and produces music, and created an original soundtrack for his third novel, Bleeding Light. The soundscapes of the album are just as varied and otherworldly as the novel itself, often incorporating direct passages from the book.
Bleeding Light is divided into four sections following five different characters. While the stories do loosely tie into each other, what unites them is a theme of desire for something more meaningful than the mundane patterns of daily life, and the lengths people will push themselves to in hopes of escaping that pattern. These stories span the globe, visiting Kenya, Arizona, Mexico City, New Orleans, Montreal, India, Dubai, Antarctica, and even surreal locations beyond our reality.
In the first story, we follow Webb, a ghostwriter whose “profession was lives, and the repackaging of their incarnations: milking tropes and bending cliches, ratcheting downturns and redemptions, crafting mythologies out of the humdrum.” (P 25) Webb travels to an island off the coast of Kenya where he’s supposed to interview Dred Hausen, a “a figure slathered in secrecy, a man spoken of in terms more like a rogue dictator than a CEO.” (P 20) Dred proves to be elusive, even for Webb, and has only left him scattered recordings of his thoughts and memories, which begin to become more mystical and mysterious as Webb learns of Dred’s experience with a strange phenomenon. In one of the recordings, Dred says: “as I stared into that misty light, I saw something beyond the natural…What the light offered, it was clear to me then, was access…It was an invitation to another world, in which the trifles of man bear no consequence.” (P 36)
The whole first section becomes something of a test to see if Webb is worthy (of an interview or something more?) and what lengths he will go to to prove himself. This story sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which centers around the other characters’ experiences being pulled by the gravity of something beyond.
The novel then jumps to Arizona, where Jovena is beginning a job as a secretary at a new school after moving back to her hometown to be near family. Her mom died and all she has left is her brother Miguel, who also had a mystical experience and is now on a spiritual quest. Jovena hasn’t heard from him in a long time, and his last known location was Kenya, an early sign of the overlap between these characters’ lives.
This section also follows Alejandra, the daughter of the school’s principal, as she navigates adolescence. She takes a trip back to Mexico City to see her grandmother one last time, and on her return receives a call about another world and the blood sacrifice required to enter it. She soon finds others have received these calls too, and together they form a covenant. Alejandra begins to see this other world as an escape from her every-day life, a chance for something more real than her reality, which becomes one of the major themes that unites all the stories. “This tiresome world, festering in all-inclusive vacations and academic transcripts and premenstrual acne, its people mollified by temporary glimmers, would soon dissolve, dropping like a curtain to reveal the thing, the true thing, behind.” (P 150)
Next, the book makes a disorienting shift to a story that feels more abstract and less grounded in reality, as Ximena tries to piece together where she is and how she got there. She finds a young man wounded in a reservoir and saves him from the water, only for him to flee into the woods. Ximena follows him and eventually comes to a strange town with its own set of rules. There, she finds a church where the pastor performs a shocking baptism.
As the mystical light comes into play again, the whole thing begins to feel similar to Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, though Bleeding Light spends more time fleshing out its characters, storylines, and central ideas, giving them time to breathe and be fully explored.
The final story focuses on Peter Hausen, the son of the “CEO” from the first story who we learn is actually an international arms dealer. Peter has recently lost his boyfriend Alain, and becomes unhinged from reality and time as a result of his grief and his own experiences with the mists and light that call him to a place beyond.
This section spans the globe in flashbacks throughout Peter’s life, bouncing around the world from India to Montreal, Dubai, Kenya, his life with Alain, and his eventual confrontation with his father in the present, as well as his own personal journey to understand the message from beyond.
The novel calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave. In a world of shadows, these characters desire not only to catch a glimpse of the real things casting them, but to reach the light at their source. Bleeding Light is not a traditional novel. Due to the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, all interior thoughts, narration, and voices blur together into a white-hot blur of the mystical—and often ominous—otherworldly crashing into the mundane. This book is not going to be for everyone due to its post-modern sensibilities both in terms of structure and formatting, but if you’ve ever desired a peek behind the scenes of reality, Bleeding Light will open that door to you and offer a glimpse of the world beyond.
by Rob Benvie
Invisible Publishing, July 2021, 320 p.p., $23.95 (print)
Will Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His fiction has appeared in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place: Brief Disruptions, and Sassafras Literary Magazine, and his book reviews have appeared in Prairie Fire (online), The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.