Apastoral by Lee D. Thompson

Apastoral: a mistopia, by Moncton author and editor Lee D. Thompson, is atypical of Atlantic Canadian fiction. But also, of fiction in general.

 A quick scan of fiction titles atop the local bestseller lists reveals a story of a girl seeking truth about her mother, another coming-of-age story with a girl seeking truth about her mother, and a story of murder and hidden treasure. All sound interesting.

By comparison, Thompson’s tale—set in a brave new not-too-distant future—is of a man, Bones, sentenced for the crime of murder to live the rest of his days as a sheep on a penal farm. Using a new and not-quite-perfected technology, his brain is transferred into the sheep’s body.

Half the novel deals with the alleged crime and bizarre proceedings of his hospitalization, psychological evaluation and “speed trial,” in which cables suspend lawyers and judge, the defendant is encouraged by his lawyer to “make them laugh, Bones,” a meter projects the probability of a guilty sentence throughout, a video recreation of the crime based on speculation is accepted as evidence, and “the jury is, of course, the audience in attendance and paid subscribers, and as per court rules the victims and those testifying wear Masks of the Afflicted.”

Thompson doesn’t so much build this world as thrust us into it, through the eyes of his hard-done-by anti-hero, both as a human and in his awkward attempts to live as a sheep while human and bovid instincts battle from within. He does however offer, through the news, deft accoutrements, especially through a buffoonish Prime Minister reminiscent of a latter-day Trump or Elon Musk, with his “Nation’s Joke of the Day” and especially his “None Funny But Me law,” as it’s colloquially known.

“Thompson doesn’t so much build this world as thrust us into it.”

We don’t learn how the world got this way (though it’s not THAT big a stretch from the news-as-entertainment world we know), but we sense from the trial and the fact that people watch the crime, trial and punishment as entertainment a Huxleyan (Brave New World) kind of environment, and indeed drugs are administered regularly to the protagonist throughout his ordeal, leaving him in a fog that numbs the harshness of reality.

The scientific transmogrification central to the story is reminiscent of Bulgakov’s 1925 novella, Heart of a Dog, which skewer’s through allegory the Russian Revolution’s attempt to alter the nature of humans. [That novel circulated through what was called samizdat, or underground publications, which also happens to be in the name of Thompson’s publisher, corona/samizdat.]

In Bulgakov’s story, the dog is made human with parts from a nasty alcoholic thief, and indeed becomes a terrible man who makes his creator’s life a living hell. Bones is also a professional thief, but mostly a gentler sort with a following, indeed sheepish, nature.  As a sheep, he struggles to stay man, at least in his thinking and sense of free will. The procedure is irreversible and he’s not sure if he’ll live a sheep’s full lifespan, or precisely how long that is anyway.

I was also reminded, during the human portions of the story, of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange, and his teenage delinquent “droogs” who committed violent crimes for fun. While Bones’ gang is older and far less brutal (more sympathetic despite their many foibles)—indeed their life of crime seems largely due to a lack of other options offered in their world, and still Bones mostly follows along despite his reservations—their crassness has a rhythm reminiscent, though far more comprehensible, of the dialect Burgess invented. And their capture and treatment after their crime goes sideways and someone dies, the way Bones becomes the victim of a state experiment, took me back to that reading experience.

The difference is perhaps what Thompson is saying with Apastoral. He says in his acknowledgements “there’s still no theme.” Yet in sketching his chaotic autocracy, he offers certain nuggets that show us something significant about the world we live in—that we are not immune from here in Atlantic Canada.

The most profound is this question, posed by Bones in his still-human state (who mostly comes across as being of average intelligence at best): “Why does man imprison man? No other species does this.”

His state-appointed shrink, despite his extreme laziness, eventually answers, “We’re a strange, strange species, Bones.”

Well, I guess I already knew that. Its profundity comes from the situation of its source, someone about to have his body snatched, his brain put into a sheep. Thompson’s novel is satirical of course, and very funny, and creates a scenario that raises many excellent questions about what it is to be human, what extraordinary abilities we’ve been given with even average brains, and what kind of world we want to make with them.  

In doing so, he has made the most of the fiction tool. He has entertained and provoked. He takes the sheep to water and makes us think.

About the Author

Lee D. Thompson’s fiction has been published in five anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. His first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. Mouth Human Must Die was published by Frog Hollow Press in 2017, and the novel Apastoral: A Mistopia with Corona/Samizdat in 2022.

  • Format: 280 pages, Paperback
  • Published July 15, 2022 by corona/samizdat
  • ISBN 9789619586303

Chris Benjamin is the author of four award-winning books, including Boy With A Problem, which was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction. His forthcoming travel memoir is Chasing Paradise: A Hitchhiker's Search for Home in a World at War with Itself.