The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses
Feverish, recursive thoughts and a lachrymose prose are the key features of The Hundred Year Flood, a debut novel ten years in the making. It focuses on Tee, a half-Korean boy who, after gaining a whopping inheritance in the aftermath of his uncle’s suicide, goes to Prague in order to redefine himself. On his first day there he meets Pavel Picasso, an iconoclast painter from the days of revolution, and his wife, Katka. Tee gets a job at a bookstore, briefly, but mostly spends his time drinking and hanging out with Pavel, Katka and their friend Rockerfeller, endlessly pouring over his past, his adoption, his parents’ divorce, the ways he is and isn’t like his father, his uncle, his aunt, his mother, his father, etc.
Within the first ten pages of The Hundred Year Flood we are introduced to all themes and tropes, which persist without variation of any kind throughout the book. They are: Tee’s container (where he harbors his emotions), birds, ghosts, “wrong women,” melancholy, memory, Tee’s family and adoption. These notes, hit on every page, again and again, make the book feel like a minimalist composition in the Philip Glass vein. Yet it can’t quite be called minimal since we are privy to the puerile, sloshing inner minutiae of Tee’s circular mind. Such a baroque gesture notably weighs the piece.
The text has a staccato’d, disjointed feeling. Every scene is vignette, lasting a page and half on average. The longest stretch of focused prose is five pages, which happens twice. The rate of scene change is strobe-like and epileptic as a result. The Hundred Year Flood would have benefited from letting the characters exist longer on the page because there are moments when the author hits strides of wonderful rhythm, only to instantly snuff them. It feels as if the novel was written one paragraph per year and never found the throughline that it needs, also making it impossible to connect with any of the characters, who simply need more time.
We flicker from Tee’s time in Prague to his stay at a rehabilitation clinic after being brained in Prague. While recovering, Tee does precisely what he did before his injury, which is reminisce, try to piece together his past, etc, and we might find his single-minded focus inspiring if the things he cared about weren’t so insipid. Everything Tee cares about only matters to Tee, somehow even when his actions directly effect the people around him. This device drives the plot, yet stunts his attempt at redefinition. Intentionally so, it seems, but it is ungratifying to experience Tee’s stagnation. Even when things in the novel ought to feel hectic or strained, we still hear the same steady series of notes we have heard when nothing is happening at all.
All of this might be forgivable, or at least overlookable, if the tooth-rottingly saccharine sentiment didn’t create an atmosphere of stilted construct and inauthentic melodrama. Even when Tee and his mother exchange emails, they write as if they’re poets dragged into the Civil War. “I’m always missing something,” Tee writes, “There was that day Dad took me to the library when he was supposed to be watching me at home. You came around your counter, as if you had expected us, and told Dad to go. He kept acting like he’d won something, but what?” The context offers no clarity, as it happens. All of Salesses’ dialogue carries on in a way that causes one to imagine each character holding the back of their hand to their head, like 1930’s starlets.
The Hundred Year Flood feels piecemeal, no doubt in large part due to the duration it took to complete. Salesses, like Tee, is too sentimental and clings too much. The novel creates a sensation of bugs under the skin, leaves you craving an author you can rely on. This agitation to find something meaningful is shared by author and reader. Maybe Salesses’s next book will feel more complete, assuming he learns the lessons Tee never did.