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Zachary Thomas Dodson

Zach Dodson co-founded featherproof books in 2005, a small press in Chicago. He is most often a book designer, but sometimes an author too. He went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lives in Helsinki now.

Blurbs

“Bats of the Republic is a waking dream of America gone sideways: it’s familiar, enchanting, and just pretty damned weird in the most beguiling possible ways. Zachary Thomas Dodson has made a magnificent book.”

– Audrey Niffenegger

“A richly textured, deeply felt, magical trove of a book.”

– Patrick deWitt

"In Bats of the Republic, even the surprises are full of surprises."

– Amelia Gray

“Amazing. Actually amazing. Zachary Thomas Dodson has created a new form to tell his story, and in so doing, he has found a way to fuse adventure to love, weld science fiction to sorrow, and encircle everything in a winsome, mystifying experience of art, illustration, and design. Like the living secrets its hero finds in the deep, forgotten caves of Texas, Bats of the Republic is itself a hidden, undiscovered beauty.”

– Patrick Somerville

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Bats of the Republic

It invites us into its world even as it enters our own.

08/17/15

Bats of the Republic is a book that straddles the line between artist book and trade publication. Part epistolary novel, part political drama, part naturalist guide to creatures both real and fantastical, it contains a novel-within-a-novel, pamphlet guides ranging from zip line use to minefield navigation, numerous maps, family trees and technical diagrams. It is as much a collection of objects as it is a single one and in this Bats of The Republic is a story that pushes the boundaries of what narrative can do.

Traditional narrative makes up only a small part of the book’s contents. These passages follow Zeke Thomas as he navigates a political drama set in the year 2143. We also follow the story of Zeke’s relative Zadok in 1843 through letters he writes to his love, Elswyth as he travels a reimagined American West. Elswyth’s own story is described through a novel written some time later and based on her life, being read by a character in the future to try and piece together the past and understand how it shaped the present. Complimenting these three primary narratives are a host of letters, drawings and pieces of ephemera from within the story. The Police State that Zeke inhabits in the future transcribes his telephone conversations and we have access to those transcripts. The narrative on Bats is not so much told by Dodson as it is presented. It’s an experience more than a vision and I was drawn through its mystery not by cliffhanger chapter breaks or Dodson’s concealment of information, but instead by a genuine curiosity brought on by each new piece of information discovered.

I found that I often came to understand new evidence in tandem with the book’s characters. Zadock’s drawings grow increasingly fantastical as his journey through Texas progresses and as they did I wondered if the animals inhabiting this fictional past really were so strange or if they were the products of Zadock’s imagination. Just a few pages later, in a letter Zeke’s would-be father-in-law writes, “There is evidence of insanity in these late letters. Zadock becomes more liberal with the attributes he gifts his fantastical animals.” Much of the narrative is carried out in this way, with me wondering if a piece of information meant what I thought it did, and the characters then making their own interpretations and assertions.

The effect is a story you can never quite trust. It is somehow more true and less clear that a typical narrative. The conclusions proposed aren’t the conclusion Dodson necessarily believes, but are instead the interpretations of characters imbedded within the story. They, like the reader, uncover the mystery of the past in pieces and try to put together a story that makes sense based on what they find. But in the end there is no final authority, no definitive answer, no clean conclusion. There might be one, but it is inaccessible, ever obscured by the rich, contradictory, half-remembered way in which the past makes itself available to us. With the available evidence, we are able to construct a picture of what the fictional past was like, and how it laid the road to the dystopic present, but we will only ever have our belief, never a firm knowledge of cause and effect. Bats of the Republic is a narrative that must be excavated, rather than merely found and there is a pleasure in this. It’s a true mystery, a puzzle, something to mull over and think about in an age of increasing ease of consumption. It’s a long read, though filled with pictures and diagrams, because a simple cover-to-cover examination isn’t enough. I had to go back, re-read, confirm, examine, explore in a way that books rarely demand. Bats of the Republic is a book that requires close attention and it’s well crafted enough to warrant the time.

Not only this, but the book is fun. It’s deeply engaging, complex, and experimental, but in the end it’s simply an enjoyable object to engage with. When I was a kid I typed out letters in gothic typefaces, dyed the paper in tea and burned the edges with my parents’ help. I drew maps and made objects for the players of my Dungeons and Dragons games. I wrote histories from within the settings of my imaginary worlds. I have always had a deep love for fiction that enters the real world, that can be drawn out as much as it draws you in. I have a geeky affection for the artifacts of fictional worlds. Bats of The Republic is this kind of object. It’s a case file, a documentary reader, a collector’s archive. It invites us into its world even as it enters our own.

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