William Brewer’s The Red Arrow is an exquisitely written novel about depression, fathers, and writing, but mostly it’s about what connects us across space, time and art.
I read this novel in a single day, too fast, the way you devour a bowl of pasta after rain-soaked hike. And now I’m itching to read it again.
The narrator, a young painter-turned-writer, is struggling to write the Great West Virginian Novel, his thoughts clouded by ‘the mist’ of a depression so severe it threatens his livelihood, his relationship, his very sense of self. Having defaulted on his book deal, he turns to ghost-writing for a reclusive physicist in the hope of wiping his debt to the publisher. Blinded by despair and on the brink of self-annihilation, a beacon of hope appears in the form of an unorthodox treatment involving psychedelic drugs.
One of the reasons I’ll need to reread The Red Arrow is to untangle my thoughts about the book from the way it mirrors my life at this very moment, and how that made me feel.
Less than a week from now, just days after reading this book, someone I love is scheduled to undergo an experimental treatment for depression much like the one described in the novel. His depression manifests in a very comparable way to the book’s narrator, expressing itself through the same metaphors, behaviours and limitations of language. It all hit very close to home.
This unsettles me because the story is filled with similar coincidence-like connections. It even includes a scene in which the narrator reads a Geoff Dyer novel that echoes almost perfectly his life at that moment.
That the parallels feel uncanny speaks perhaps more to the astounding accuracy with which Brewer describes treatment-resistant depression than cosmic coincidence. I have read much fiction and non-fiction about depression, but rarely have I stood up book in hand and paced around the room reading aloud in awed recognition.
This a rare novel, both lucid and dreamlike, that brims with compelling philosophical ideas. It builds to a rewarding, mind-expanding climax. The Red Arrow is expertly constructed in the shape of a trip (in all senses of the word) from which one returns a different person. In my case it left behind an echo whose reverberations are shaking loose significant memories and emotions, and I feel myself vibrating to its peculiar frequency, still, as I type those words.