Bats of the Republic by Zach Dodson
I became aware of Zachary Dodson’s work the same way many books nerds might have: through Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas. It seems as visually striking and smartly-designed a volume to me today as the day I first encountered it. It exemplifies—as does anything he has done with featherproof, frankly—what I admire most about Zach’s work: that it is so thorough in its approach. And in this way—his thoroughness—you could rightly aver that Bats of the Republic is Dodson’s masterpiece. It couldn’t be more thorough.
It is saturated in well-thought-out, carefully considered design. And it is magical. It instantly turned me back into my teenage self: the gawky kid who spent countless hours in the local antique mall poring over dusty late-19th/early 20th century books, admiring their construction and detail (and greedily buying anything graced by the genius of W.A. Dwiggins—my pristine boxed edition of Von Doderer’s The Demons will always be among my most prized possessions). They don’t make books like that anymore.
Sure, nowadays you can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting a brilliant cover designer, but books like this are a rare thing. And that’s just it—for most books, the brilliance is reserved largely for its cover. You don’t often encounter a true object. Dodson makes objects. But they’re not merely pretty Things. Sure, this treatment has its precedents (Abrams/Dorst, Danielewski), but Dodson’s design is not just a flashy veneer (or distraction)—it supports and expands on the content of the book, gives physical manifestation to its themes, its moods, its atmosphere. It helps create that atmosphere: do you not feel, as you read Bats, that you are somehow part of it?
Of course you do—you are, in holding this bespoke volume, this volume from some impossible ur-past/future, part of a fiction. You are complicit in this book-object’s narrative—a narrative that bleeds from its pages and seeps into your own reality (you couldn’t wait to open the letter, could you?). It helps, obviously, that Dodson is an incredible writer to boot. Although it is a novel much in the vein, stylistically, of Shane Jones’ Light Boxes or Patrick DeWitt’s Under Major Domo Minor (it’s a little Wes Anderson-y, even) with an elliptical, Choose Your Own Adventure kind of mystery to it, the comparisons end there. Bats is something else altogether.
It is a book that documents a tale—it doesn’t just tell it. That is what’s truly innovative here. It is an immersive experience. You almost forget that you’re reading. And I love that it’s not a neat and tidy fantasy tale, replete with plot points that read like prefab epiphanies-in-waiting. It’s a bit hair-brained—and is joyfully aware of the fact (even at times poking fun at itself—how can a book-within-a-book not?). All in all, Dodson’s pulled off a real feat here. It is something I’ll keep coming back to again and again—as a designer, and a reader.
View more pictures from the book, or watch the book trailer here:
Also, stay tuned for the next episode of the Pantscast, which features an interview with Zach, plus a special guest.