One day in early October, young entrepreneurs handed out copies of a mysterious novel to innocent passersby meandering through Red Square. Perhaps you picked up a copy, or stopped long enough to read the back cover:
“YOU WANT HER, DON’T YOU”
This proclamation screams out in big black letters on the cover of the book that was thrust upon my roommate. On the dust jacket is a quote: “Hope was speaking—had been speaking, it seemed, for a very long time.”
“Hope” is the personified goddess central to Richard Shapero’s truly terrible novel, The Hope We Seek. Apparently, Shapero has enlisted people to distribute his book across campuses around the country– including our home on the Hilltop– and even payed for GoodReads to hand out free copies in order to get free online reviews. A good rule of thumb: Beware of free books, particularly when they are promoted so aggressively. The Hope We Seek is not worth picking up even for free, unless you want to peruse its absurdity and read aloud select quotes at your next party for comedic purposes. Feel free to read this review in lieu of picking up an actual copy; I have taken the liberty to include the novel’s featured art as well.
This absurd novel takes place “a few years shy of the twentieth century,” and centers on a group of miners in Alaska digging for gold at a cult-like mining camp. At this camp, all the miners work like slaves to try and find the goddess “Hope” somewhere deep underground. This camp is ruled by a tyrannical camp boss, a “despotic priest” who pretends to be in communion with this Hope goddess. SPOILER ALERT: Eventually, the protagonist (Zack) becomes the true priest and kills this boss. This is the essence of the convoluted plot, which comprises about ten percent of the total novel.
The other ninety percent of this work of art is filled with erotic fantasies, stilted dialogue, and terrible descriptions. One such description paints an underground prostitution cave bar as, “kidney purple, purfled and scrolled, with a high polish” (107). I was taught in fifth grade English that descriptions are meant to let you see things for yourself, but I cannot picture a kidney purple prostitution cave bar for the life of me. Somehow I don’t think it’s due to my own lack of fantasy. Not only are the descriptions over the top, but they are also examples of bad writing, worse than lots of the fanfiction that floats around the internet. Here is one choice erotic quote in reference to the Hope goddess: “He felt her enter him, her creamy essence invading his chest” (338). As for the dialogue, this comment from “Rade” on the book’s GoodReads page sums it up: “My 13 year old self could write better dialogue.”
Shapero’s ability to create an interesting and structured plot is, in a word, lacking. Perhaps he doesn’t care about the plot. After all, on the jacket he is lauded by Kirkus Review (which, by the way, reviews self-published books for a $425–$575 fee) as displaying “an impressive command of the unconscious,” and he is said to “deliver readers to different worlds, where characters struggle with gods of their own devising.” Maybe Shapero just wants the reader to enter the psychedelic experience that is The Hope We Seek; he achieves his goal by eliminating any coherent plotline in the story.
Shapero is trying, it seems, to translate the human “unconscious” into tangible art. I certainly hope this is his own unique inner world, because it’s certainly not mine. My inner world is not the overly sexual and violent confusion that Shapero’s must be. A single passage shows it all: “Her massive body vipered down. The leviathan neck disappeared into a tunnel, slick and gleaming, and her scaled trunk followed, essing and errowing to pick up the slack. Clouds of bats swooped after her, entering the channel, and the chorus of squeals that echoed within merged with the hiss of Hope’s crystals. The sound had inflection, meaning—You know where to find me, Hope said” (401).
Not only does Shapero use descriptions of Hope as a chance to write overtly erotic passages, but he also makes use of every other female character in the novel to delve further into his odd, erotic fantasies. Every female character in the book works as a prostitute in “Blondetown”, the prostitution ring that serves the miners. Maybe Shapero borrows from Roman law, requiring all prostitutes to dye their hair blonde. In addition to being blondist, this portrayal of women is— most concerningly— highly sexist. He goes so far as to define women’s roles only in relation to men’s needs: in one scene, Hope becomes the universal goddess, “whose mission was to nourish and protect” (338). Is the sole purpose of women to “nourish and protect” men? I think not.
The novel’s sexism is further complemented by both gratuitous violence and racism. In the final battle between Zack and the camp boss, the description is horrific: “Zack raised the pick and drove its sharp end at Trevillian’s chest. The cloth split. Zack felt the pectoral give, ribs parting around it, the point burying deep in the heart’s cage” (414). This scene is like the worst video game, full of graphic sex and violence. The atrocities don’t stop there; as someone called Catherine noted in a GoodReads review, the book has racist undertones as well: “all the cooks are Asian, and all the Asians are cooks.”
If we turn a blind eye to the terrible writing, erotic scenes, sexism, violence, and racism, all that remains is the possibility that The Hope We Seek illuminates some greater meaning through its overt symbolism. Hope, the goddess, is a blatant personification of (guess what?) hope, showing the depth to which Shapero contemplated his “provocative” symbolism. But I will give Shapero the benefit of the doubt: Is there the possibility that if you look deeper, the book explores the inner machinations of humanity and divinity?
Perhaps Hope could be some kind of metaphor for man’s (and it would have to be man, wouldn’t it) deepest desires and fears of being alone in the world. As he articulates in one passage, “No man can hurt you, child. Hope is inside you” (339). Or, the symbolism could explore the mystery of the infinite universe, which is “nothing but mist, stars winking in a midnight void” (215). The novel could even be about religion, reflecting the Buddhist concept of self-enlightenment, or the idea of the “divinity within.” Unfortunately for Shapero, any decent English teacher would tear these interpretations, in particular his “symbolic” names like “Dream Song” and “Sacred Breath,” to shreds.
Probably the winner of all the novel’s terrible lines occurs only a few pages from the end: “Zack could feel Hope racing through his veins, could taste her on his lips, the creamy essence coating his tongue. ‘I’m her priest,’ he boomed. ‘I’m her priest!’” (410).
Although I have only had a taste of Shapero’s full work, I can say with certainty that I would rather listen to a chalkboard concert than suffer through the whole thing. I would probably emerge weeks after reading Shapero’s nightmare of a novel in a drug-trip-esque coma. The best word to sum up what I have read of The Hope We Seek is “tawdry”: cheap, flashy, and low quality.
Catherine from GoodReads agrees: “After spending about fifteen hours reading The Hope We Seek, I can safely say that it is the worst book I have ever read.”