Author: AJ Saxsma
Genre: LGBTQ Drama / Thriller
Ollie Hooper and his partner, Dwayne Brenner, have moved away to make a fresh start. Dwayne stays at home helping with Ollie’s two children, Jodi Lee and Sam, from an ex-wife, while Ollie takes a role in the Sheriff’s Department.
Immediately cracks begin to appear. Dwayne is subjected to continual homophobia as he battles against the children and his failing health. Meanwhile, Ollie becomes too preoccupied with finding a serial killer, “The Visitor,” to notice that everyone is unraveling…
Morphosis is a curious novel that moves between genres to conclude in a vastly different area from where it began, which is appropriate given the title. The story changes focus from disconcerting family drama to a thriller that becomes truly dreadful.
There is also, among others, a tangent involving religious fanaticism. However, one constant through the shifting narrative is the nasty, relentless thread of the rural town’s shockingly homophobic behavior directed, chiefly, toward Dwayne.
The novel opens with home video footage taken on the moving-in day in May 1987. It’s very convincing—Saxsma is excellent at third-person objectivity and this camera-eye viewpoint continues, to a lesser extent, throughout.
The video picks up the characters’ physical gestures and expressions, and it is through these that Saxsma provides early clues of underlying tension that provoke the reader’s curiosity.
Once the film ends, the reader follows Dwayne as he attempts to settle into the rural farmhouse. Although Saxsma discloses basic emotional reactions, he uses mechanical behavior and dialogue to expose deeper psychological turmoil within the characters.
There is an uneasy sense of foreboding, which is gripping. Saxsma uses the oppressive heat and dilapidation of the rural setting to compound this, building an ominous, highly charged atmosphere that is horribly compelling to read.
The plot sets up more questions than answers, both from the past and in the present. This fascinating ambiguity is the novel’s strength but also its weakness, especially toward the end when a touch more exposition might have been beneficial.
Combined with the open bigotry of the townsfolk, the ghastly behavior of Ollie’s children contributes to Dwayne’s isolation. He is immensely vulnerable but never presents as pathetic, with periodic flashes of single-mindedness.
Five-year-old Sam subjects him to exhausting demands. Teenager Jodi Lee treats him with outright hostility despite Dwayne’s efforts to engage with her, which are heart-wrenching in their futility.
Jodi Lee manifests no discernible redeeming features yet garners sympathy. She is lost, rendering her easy prey, and the repeated scenes with the school secretary who laughingly says, “It’s like you don’t exist,” are loaded with sub-textual meaning. Whether by accident or design, given the book’s moniker, they have a distinct Kafkaesque feel.
Ollie is a self-absorbed character who becomes incredibly unlikable. He is subsumed into the peculiarly negligent atmosphere in the Sheriff’s department and is oblivious to the needs of his family as he becomes enthralled by the prospect of fame.
His relationship with Dwayne is strangely disconnected. He appears uncomfortable with his feelings and embarrassed of Dwayne, expressing little affection or empathy for him. No real knowledge is given of their shared history and this occasionally proves frustrating.
“The Visitor” sub-plot should not work, but it does. The weird menace that simmers in the town means the arrival of a serial killer is oddly not unexpected. Brutal and uncompromising, the finale comes with a rush of cinematic violence that changes the landscape, but not the problems therein.
In Morphosis, Saxsma has written an intense and unusual story that explores multiple themes. He skillfully exploits perspective to complement an ambitious, intriguing, and vivid narrative that is quietly powerful and affecting to read.
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