Brat: A Novel

Image of Brat: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 4, 2024
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

Brat, the debut novel of Gabriel Smith, has been alternately described as “thrillingly claustrophobic” (Ed Park, author of Same Bed Different Dreams) and “jauntily creepy” (Gabrielle Lutz, author of Worsted), the book a “sharp, eerie, confident debut.” (Jordan Castro, author of The Novelist).

The meandering, confused tone of the narrative and the bizarre nonsensical events suggest a young mind grasping for the meaning of life when that life has only been lived in a small world, mundanely and for a short amount of time, certainly not enough time to have gained much wisdom or sense of what makes a good story in a universe full of real things that go awry or fall into place magically.

But existential challenges fall unto Gabriel as a young writer, when his father dies and he’s tasked to clean out the family home and sell it. Mysterious and creepy details present themselves as his skin peels off in large sheets; black mold in the house grows almost visibly; his mother, in a care home with dementia, proves alternately lucid and forgetful. Also his ex-girlfriend writes a story that is reprinted in full as part of the narrative, about a rich man who buys expensive paintings and jacks off onto them, only once. After absorbing that narrative, the reader is paying attention, albeit it with clenched teeth, possibly feeling “had,” thinking really? This is what we’re focusing our attention on? The purpose of this kind of bizarre and socially awkward story seems weirdly ambitious—shock us into praise for this new kind of dark “talent.”

Between bouts of violent and bloody fisticuffs and drunken and/or drug-filled hours of wondering what the meaning of his skin peeling could be, or what happened to his relationship with his genius ex-girlfriend, the family home is supposedly haunted. Therein are video tapes whose content changes from one viewing to the next, sometimes almost revealing secrets that would turn the meaning of family on its head, and other times have no meaning at all. His mother’s manuscripts and movie scripts have a chameleon-like habit of changing between viewings and readings, and there is an inordinate amount of the easy-to-read pages dedicated to simply noticing that something has changed in the videotape or the manuscript. Just when the narrative seems to point to some solvable conundrum of his life, mixed with the meaning of the manuscripts and stories and tapes, the thread is dropped.

By the time the protagonist admits he is “scared” (telling), the reader still cannot muster up much empathy for the cigarette-smoking, swearing and prone-to-fisticuffs young searcher. We never figure out exactly what the deer-man with the trowel in his hand (who shows up randomly in scenes) means other than his grandmother’s obvious wisdom when she says, “I know it’s scary, but a garden is made of a million things. They help. When things need cutting down or new things need planting. You can’t do it all on your own.”  

One thing the author has mastered is the art of writing an easy-to-read scene, and the novel is full of them in short bursts. They serve the purpose of getting the reader from one mundane, meaningless scene to the next.

In one of these scenes, three-quarters of the way through the book, Gabriel is riding into the city in a car with the top down, with the girl and the boy who show up mysteriously in the tape and at the family home:

“We reached the part of the city where the university campus was.
“My mother used to teach here,” I said, “before she was demented.”
“Teach what?” the girl said.
"English. Creative Writing.”
“Can you write?” the girl said.
“Not really,” I said, “I’m just good at pretending.”

There are, however, some exquisite descriptions.

“Afterward I dressed and put on shoes.
I went outside.
I went to the bottom of the garden.
I took the padlock off the shed door. I left it slightly ajar.
Then I went back inside, and upstairs, and to bed, and was quickly pulled backward into my own eyelids.”

A mixed bag of a novel.