The new novel by Victoria N. Alexander, Locus Amoenus, is a delight to read. It weaves an important modern-day tale while following the outline of William Shakespeare's enduring tragedy, Hamlet. The Bard’s tale of Hamlet is a personal and community tragedy placed in a historical period in which the fight over the control of Hamlet’s native country ultimately leads to its subjugation to a foreign country. The characters woven into the Locus Amoenus story are no less tragic than Shakespeare’s, and the reader is left wondering just how the world of Alexander’s characters could have avoided being seduced into a current-day form of subjugation when the curtain comes down. Throughout her witty narrative, the author's wry humor adds levity to her tale of today's Hamlet.
The story is recounted largely in the first person from the perspective of Hamlet. And, yes, the names and roles of Alexander’s characters parallel those of Shakespeare’s characters. The story begins with a new beginning, in the form of a wedding, where Hamlet’s mother and future stepfather are joining together in marriage. All is not well, because Hamlet, feeling betrayed and alone, wallows in remembrances of his father, who was killed some years earlier, when the Twin Towers were destroyed in New York City on September 11, 2001. Through his recollections of those subsequent years with his mother, Hamlet paints a scene of his hometown, Amenia, New York. Amenia is a rural community whose residents prefer to be left alone, thus avoiding any challenges to the conventional wisdom of the day. After all, they live in a pleasant place surrounded by a beautiful pastoral setting, so what could possibly be lacking?
At the wedding, we are introduced to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, an ardent educator to the world who is appalled not only at the state of the educational system but also by the nutritional diseases that the local population embraces wholeheartedly. Claudius, his future stepfather, is a dutiful if uninquisitive engineer who recently worked on one aspect of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report about the destruction of the Twin Towers. Polonius, a friend of the family, provides an opportunity for Hamlet to muse about Polonius’ absent children, who will emerge later in the story: Ophelia, a childhood friend of Hamlet, and her brother, Laertes, who is serving a tour in the military occupation of Iraq. Then there are the two sometimes-problematic community members and friends of Hamlet named Rosencrantz and Guilderstein. Finally, during a flashback to the day of destruction of the Twin Towers, a brief introduction is given to Mr. Horatio, Hamlet’s fifth grade science teacher, who finds Hamlet after he survived the dust cloud from the Twin Towers' collapse. The flashback to that day includes the vignette where the settling dust from the Twin Towers was absent-mindedly collected and put in a container. They never thought that one day the collected dust would emerge like a genie in a bottle to grant them a wish.
With this palate of colorful characters, Hamlet’s life in Amenia unfolds from his early days as a carefree homeschooled boy to a young man who returns from his first year at college. During these formative years, his mother amuses him with lessons about the world as she takes on first the local ossified educational curriculum system and then the nutritional wasteland of the local school cafeteria. Each of these efforts at change adds another scene to a troubling mural about the microcosm of America that is Amenia. Many of these scenes are infused with the ever-present Carlyle Hogg, the community eyes and ears who has established himself as the arbiter of what is proper and what is not.
Hamlet’s world is upended when Mr. Horatio returns with the news that remnants of high-temperature incendiaries were found in the dust that they had collected following the fall of the Twin Towers. Mr. Horatio leads Hamlet to examine the boundaries of his world — to see that there is more to the social and political fabric in and around Amenia than he had ever noticed before. The troubling mural of conformity and unquestioning obedience to a world enforced by the will of Carlyle Hogg is brought into focus as Hamlet encounters free thinkers. These free thinkers lead him to embrace a new way of viewing and interacting with his new stepfather as well as confronting the ghost of his father.
As in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, these changes — and an unwillingness to passively accept the way things are — set the stage for a final confrontation. The climax of Alexander’s Hamlet involves activation of all the forces that are at play in Gertrude’s Amenia. And, like Shakespeare, Alexander tells a cautionary tale, as Amenia once again becomes a pleasant place, but this time subjugated by invisible barriers enforced by conformity and an unwillingness to ask questions.
Mainstream reviewers, award-winning novelists and other celebrated critics have favorably compared Alexander to James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Pynchon, Lewis Carroll, Barbara Kingsolver, Vladimir Nabokov, and Don Delillo, as well as to The Bard himself. Could her book be a breakthrough for the 9/11 Truth Movement as the world wrestles with the ghosts of our past?