I don’t even know how to begin with this book, so I’ll start by copying the description on the inside cover, to give you an idea of what it is if you’re reading this review: “the story of a corner of a room and of the events that have occurred in that space over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.” So it’s basically as if someone plopped down a camera in one specific spot billions of years ago, and that camera took pictures of the same space for billions of years, past present day, thousands of years into the future. Here gives you a random assortment of those pictures (drawn, of course—this is a comic, I suppose, or maybe a graphic novel, though it’s all semantics) in non-chronological order. There’s no story, really.
And there are no main characters. Dialogue is very sparse, and most of the time we’re dropped into the middle of a conversation that we have no context for. We don’t get to know any characters, and because of the extremely disjointed, non-narrative nature of the story, it’s hard to even know who people are in relation to one another. If you mapped every panel out chronologically, studied the characters’ appearances, and made some inferences, you could probably get a good idea how many different people have lived in the house, and when they moved, and when they moved furniture around, but it’s difficult.
It’s easy to see what kind of fun can be had from a book like this one. It makes you wonder what your own house looked like decades before you moved there. It makes you wonder what it’ll look like after you move out. It makes you imagine your house being built in the first place, and it makes you imagine a time when your house won’t exist anymore—because it’ll be ravaged by something, whether it’s a flood, a fire, a renovation, or just the gradual passage of time. Eventually, humans won’t be here anymore, and your house won’t be, either.
So that’s a pretty strong conceit to begin with, but it could get a little old. It’s possible that you could figure out the format of the book and get the essential themes in the first quarter or so, and your eyes could start to glaze over as you realize it’s pretty much the same thing for the rest of the book.
I think there are a few things that saved this book from redundancy for me. First, there are sprinkles of narrative throughout, sort of little micro-stories embedded in the book. There’s the old couple in 1986 telling the story of how they met. There’s a futuristic hologram woman in 2213 teaching a group of students (or tourists?) about when humans used to rely on primitive technology like wristwatches, wallets, and keys. There’s a man in 2005 taking care of his father. There’s the house itself being built in 1907. There’s the man painting a woman during a picnic in 1870. These mini-narratives keep it from feeling too repetitive.
But even though it’s easy to get stuck in the rhythm of just flying through the book, briefly glancing at each page, getting the gist, and moving on, stopping and really absorbing it pays off. There are so many unspeakably beautiful things contained in here. There are stretches where the disjointed panels get more and more crowded on each page, all from different time periods, and it feels like time is speeding up, like there’s a symphony going on around you and it’s crescendoing and beginning to deafen you. There are so many moments throughout the book where I felt overwhelmed, like I was coming to some sort of epiphany, where I felt all the walls of spacetime closing in around me. It makes you feel insignificant, like one impermanent blip in the greater scheme of things, but it’s also weirdly life-affirming somehow, in ways I can’t explain.
It makes you feel a lot of things. You feel curious; you want to get to know these characters, even though you never will. There are moments when you see the Earth as it was before humans, millions or billions of years ago, and you feel profoundly isolated, profoundly alone. Same goes for some of the panels set in the future. There are moments that are, intentionally or not, horrifying. The book feels like it was written by God, by an omnipotent figure who’s capturing these images throughout the history of the Earth, and it feels like you’ve accidentally stumbled into his office and seen his work. It’s a deeply disconcerting feeling—it almost feels like a horror movie, in a weird, indescribable way.
I remember a quote from Drew McWeeny’s review of The Witch: “Eggers manages to create a sense of mood and dread that is so suffocating at times that it feels like we’re watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.” Most people might not have that same reaction to Here, but occasionally I felt that way: disturbed, like I was being shown something beyond humans, something that I wasn’t equipped to process either intellectually or emotionally. It reminded me a little of watching Under the Skin, or the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And it’s strange, because this is a story with no characters, no consistent thing worth getting emotionally invested in—you could say ‘the space is a character,’ but that doesn’t describe it quite well, either, because it’s not sentient or anthropomorphized, and it changes forms so drastically. There’s nothing specifically emotional in the book, really; some might say that it’s a thought-provoking intellectual exercise, but a primarily clinical one. You’re not going to cry because a character dies, or because you’re really rooting for a romantic pairing. And yet there are moments reading this book where I found myself shivering, and there are moments when I thought I was going to tear up.
There’s too much I want to say here, and I could keep writing thousands of words and still not describe every thought-provoking image I encountered here, every connection I drew, every deeper thought I had. All I can say now is that you should read it.