By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.
Ashley Bell, the latest novel by Dean Koontz, is appropriately enigmatic, endlessly imaginative and often brilliant. It displays Koontz’s mastery of form by constructing much of its massive 560 page length as a mostly fascinating, if certainly overlong, puzzle. Though the ultimate resolve is obvious in hindsight, and presented far too early in the narrative, the manner in which the tale is told overcomes these otherwise unavoidable flaws. Besides the engrossing, subtle manner in which much of the story is formatted Koontz’s illustrious, endlessly quotable writing makes even the more lumbering, repetitious moments within the effort strangely enchanting. Koontz’s December 8th of 2015 released read is, more often than not, a joy to be swept up in.
The exertion details a young twenty-two year old author named Bibi Blair. After suffering a sudden pain while writing at her computer desk, which leads to the belief she has had a stroke, she is rushed to the hospital. Soon after this happens she receives a diagnosis which threatens to cut her literary dreams, and her life, short. Yet, after telling a nurse “We’ll see” when she is told that she only has a year to live something miraculous occurs. She is almost immediately cured of her ailment. That is when Koontz begins to shuffle between Blair’s memories. He distorts reality in an always gripping fashion. Soon after Blair, who is attempting to find the solution to her quick cure, becomes convinced that saving the title character is her ultimate mission. Such is a jump-off point for a grand succession of increasingly bizarre and unique coincidences.
Blair herself allows Koontz to give one of his most insightful glimpses into his own mentality and personal viewpoints as a writer. These elements are consistently fascinating. Moreover, he mixes them well into the account itself. Our lead is all the more vivid and authentic because Koontz uses her in this manner. The rest of the cast is rich, finely etched and distinctly their own entity. It makes the material all the more lifelike. This also makes the indistinct components the plot balances itself upon all the more credible and imaginative.
Such also becomes problematic in the grand scheme of the composition. This is so because Blair is obviously the true focus here, which makes sense once certain revelations take flight, but it makes everyone else appear all the more secondary. Evidence of this is most perceivable in Blair’s surfer parents, Nancy and Murphy, and a male friend named Pogo. They are included in many sequences. Still, the audience never feels as if Koontz cares as much as them as for Bibi. These individuals come off as somewhat of an afterthought.
Sadly, the pace often feels leaden and aimless. Again, this could be attributed to the previously mentioned dealings. Yet, these aren’t unveiled until well into the last third of the book. During this time these apparently random assemblage of events are admirable. This is for how they ring unique instances out of what can often be perceived as commonplace. Often it even mechanizes itself in a vice versa fashion. This is when credibility takes a back seat to Koontz’s unbridled imagination. Still, so much of the piece resolves around this sensation that it makes the results overall, even with its numerous twists and cleverly put together structure, seem underwhelming. The overall craft on display here just isn’t enough to overcome how much of Ashley Bell dwells on these apparently isolated proceedings.
There are various moments of suspense. Here the story impresses upon the mind the idea that it will take off in true Koontz fashion. Yet, it never really does. This holds true until the dazzling final thirty or so pages. Koontz gives us some genuinely moving dramatic instances. They ultimately feel just as sporadic. Koontz offers segments of great poetry, where the heart that goes into these sequences pulsates through every word on the page. These always astonish. These are a bit more frequent than the times mentioned above. Still, they come up lacking. Despite this, the climax fulfills on all of these levels at once. It does this so successfully that even after the occasionally lumbering impression the tale besieges us with, especially in the mid-section, we can almost forgive Koontz for his overindulgence.
Regardless, it is this excess where Ashley Bell gets its singularity. If this were a more tightly knit, commonplace exercise it might be more immediate and wholly enjoyable. Still, it would not be as collectively memorable. Koontz wants us to close the tome with a sense that we had just been on an epic journey. One that we have searched for the title protagonist with Blair as long as she has and know her as intimately as she does herself. This Koontz succeeds at immeasurably. The piece is far more fulfilling to look back upon and to peer over every corner again knowing full well where the author was taking us. It is than we can fully appreciate the painstaking artistry, precision and confidence behind it all.
Much of this comes from the fact that Koontz often deliberately leaves us confused. This can also be seen as part of a higher point that is cleared up in the finale. Still, this remains a distorting experience. Yet, Koontz’s insistence on repeated images, such as a dense fog that always seems to be blanketing the surroundings and gradually encompassing our heroine and the emphasis on a dog named Jasper, adds a layer of fascination. This makes these muddled ingredients thrilling to mentally piece together. It is just what is needed to keep the volume from becoming as frustratingly out of touch as a fiction penned in this fashion could easily become. This is just another component of the triumphant risk-taking Koontz incorporates throughout.
What else helps matters is that even some of the red-herrings Koontz throws in are noted. One scene in particular captures this in its dialogue tremendously well. It is a wink at the audience that adds impeccably to the overall fun. Not all of the discourse is quite as intriguing as this segment. Still, it all assists in the delicate juxtaposition of drama, lyricism, intensity, credibility and dreaming mentioned above.
At first glance, the many claims that this is one of Koontz’s best labors appear unfounded. It is defiantly literary. Moreover, it refuses to classify itself as simple entertainment. This is certainly welcome. Such is especially correct in a time when it is far too appealing for best-selling authors to pump out such surface level amusements. The endeavor is also contemplative and daring. Such is also appreciated. Despite this, the problem is at a fundamental level. Much of the general narrative, and story arc, is especially basic. Though Koontz uses this as a pulpit to let his creative instincts soar, and weaves the piece in a manner that makes it easy to forget this aspect, we never fully overcome the effects of this detracting aspect.
The excitement here is in forgetting the world immediately around us. In so doing, we are wonderfully wrapped up in another. It helps us relate to Blair all the more. She becomes pleasantly accessible. This gives Koontz’s insights into the writer’s mind all the more punch. These are wise moves. They come together to make this well-worth combing through, and a great addition to the author’s literary canon. Such remains true even if it doesn’t quite live up to both its potential and the gargantuan hype attached to it. Still, Ashley Bell is satisfactory, charismatic art. It will prove especially valuable to those of us who often find ourselves daydreaming of honing the kind of living Koontz has made for himself and Blair, simultaneously, appears on the cusp of attaining.