Nathan Brown already has an illustrious career as a non-fiction and editorial writer whose work ranges from thought-provoking to iconoclastic. Nemesis Train is his first foray into fiction, and it explores (among other ideas) one person’s potential to make a difference in a world of hurting people.
In this novel, that world is represented by seven nameless characters (or — are there really seven of them?) who recur throughout the book and are introduced by generic descriptors: The Wanderer, The Clerk, The Musician, The Veteran, etc. This has the effect of keeping the reader at arms’ length from the characters, which can be frustrating at times. But it also aroused my curiosity, as I wanted to know how these different storylines were going to tie together.
The one character the reader does get to know better as an individual is the one whose chapters are narrated in first person, the only character with a name. This is a university student named Jed, who is taking the first steps of a spiritual quest and believes he is supposed to do something to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, Jed’s efforts in that direction seem futile and small in the face of real suffering. The one thing he manages to get right — the one time he really makes a huge and positive difference — it happens by accident. Which is, maybe, the best chance we get to impact another person’s life — when we get out of our own way and focus on the other person as a human being instead of our efforts at “doing good.”
The structure of Nemesis Train makes it an intriguing read. Whenever an author seems to be telling a large number of unrelated stories, readers usually hang on in hopes of a really great payoff that will tie them all together and make sense of everything they’ve read. Nemesis Train definitely pays off. The ending pulls together all the stories and all the characters in a satisfying and surprising way, and hints at more than one possible resolution to the story.
My only disappointment with Nemesis Train lay in the fact that, coming from a writer whose nonfiction prose is always tight, sparkling and incisive, the prose in this novel was sometimes a little overwritten, as if it could have benefitted from tighter editing, and the dialogue had occasional moments of being stilted. Possibly Nathan Brown has not yet fully found his voice as a fiction writer with the same confidence he has in nonfiction, but Nemesis Train is an ambitious and impressive debut that leaves me wanting more. In the realm of Christian writers who are writing serious literary fiction that explores spiritual themes without hitting you over the head with religiosity, Nathan Brown is a name to watch.