When my teenage daughter heard I was reading a book set in Prague, she perked up. “‘Robot’ comes from the Czech word ‘robotnik’ for ‘slave,’” she told me. She’s a fan of science fiction and dystopian narratives of all sorts, so she came a little closer to study the cover of the book in my hand. The shades of blue and the single yellow bird illustration has made Matthew Salesses’s The Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, 2015) one of the most beautiful covers of 2015 and does its job of drawing her in. “Sad,” I replied, thinking of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and the movie, Blade Runner, which was based on it. My daughter proceeded to tell me about Karel Capek’s 1920 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which popularized the term, “robot.”
“This isn’t a book about robots but there are a couple of mannequins mistaken for people,” I said.
“Obviously there’s a flood,” she said, indicating the title of the book in my hand: “The Hundred-Year Flood.”
“Definitely a catastrophic flood, also a ghost, an artist, an affair— more than one affair actually, assaults, and at the center a mystery.”
“For real, a ghost?”
“Huh. I’ll read it after you’re done,” she said and went off to watch an episode of BoJack Horseman.
I returned to Tee, the main character in Salesses’s novel, who has suffered a blow to the head by someone he thought was his friend, a Czech man named Rockefeller. “Where Tee had been hit, the nerves had fused together in shock, and the skin had knotted and died until a surgeon had to cut it off… the impact had caused some rare brain damage. He couldn’t tell dates or remember song lyrics.”
Tee is a Korean American adoptee in the Czech Republic in 2002. He pursues questions about his uncle’s suicide on the one hand while pursuing a deeper search for his own identity. Salesses’s novel asks many questions about art and desire, fate, nature, the elements— what are you allowed to escape? The novel begins with a list of all that Tee remembers about what happened to him. It’s a mysterious and disparate list and adds to the elegiac quality of the novel as a whole.
When I talked to Salesses, he mentioned Margot Livesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Chang-Rae Lee as writers he admires. Like Salesses’s novel, The English Patient explores mistaken identity on a cultural/national level and Native Speaker also has a list in the first chapter of the protagonist’s wife’s assessment of the protagonist. To me, the novel that felt most similar to The Hundred Year Flood, which also opens with a list, but is about loss and the reckoning of one’s actions, is Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending.
Like Barnes’s novel, The Hundred-Year Flood takes us on journey of self-discovery, the realizations accepted and nearly unbearable, cast aside and embraced. The family mystery circles his Uncle Hi, a pilot who crashes his plane upon discovering his wife’s affair. Tee grapples with the emotional impact his uncle’s death has on his family, considers how warnings are heeded and dismissed: “How strange the way we wade into disaster, step after step, not realizing how far we’ve gone until we’re drowning.”
And then further on: “(Tee) found an article in the Boston Globe about a suicide gene. How long had his uncle battled that gene within himself, or had the enemy for him always been life? The past more alive than the present. Like a ghost. Or like how Tee always reverted, in his parents’ house, to a little boy.”
As for Tee’s ghost, which captivated my daughter: “…Tee saw the ghost dart past his open door through the corridor to the bathroom. He pushed into the hall just in time to catch a ratty jean jacket and a black knee-length skirt, both unfamiliar. As he hurried after the woman, he could taste a change in the air, as if she had slipped a key under his tongue. The hall filled with rain. He tried to make the floor stay the floor. From somewhere he heard an instrument twanging—like the mouth harp his father had given him on his eighth birthday. But what he thought about was Katka and Ynez and Pavel and Rockefeller. ‘Who are you,’ he asked in his head. ‘Let me see you.’”
The question of perspective runs throughout the novel as well as in this passage about Tee’s father: “His father’s dream had always been to make films, documentaries where the camera was the eye of the beholder. He was obsessed with this idea, a way of seeing twice. The film Tee had found held two perspectives: his father’s and his aunt’s. The screen shook as his aunt recorded his father. ‘I married Zoe because she understood me. But that wasn’t enough.’”
Salesses had considered “The Artist’s Model” as a temporary title in an early draft. Tee sits for Pavel, an artist, who hides paintings of his wife in his closet. But it was the flood that ultimately became the title. Salesses says of the flood: “I was in Prague in 2004-2005, and I spent some time in the Karlin district, which was hit worst by the flood. I got kind of fascinated with the water damage and the area, but the flood wasn’t in the first draft of the book–only the damage was. Originally the book was set when I was in Prague.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School, a hundred-year flood is a weather event that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year and connotes the likelihood of it happening every hundred years. Reflecting on this, as I think of the end of Salesses’s novel, how appropos. What are the chances? That’s the tension throughout the book. An overwhelming feeling of: what are the chances of this happening? Who would think it could?
A prolific writer agile in a variety of forms (novella, short stories, essays, commentary on NPR, columns for Gulf Coast, curating discussions on adoption, race, writing , Salesses was generous with his time when we spoke about his work to date: “I’m just always writing, and when I published the novel, it was eleven years after I had started it. That meant I had a lot of other material as well. When you don’t publish right away, the work accrues. Then it seems like I’ve written a lot in a short period–though I’ve actually written what seems like a normal amount over a long period.”
Was The Hundred-Year Flood different than other books you’ve written? I asked. Salesses: “It wasn’t so different, I suppose, just a larger project than anything else I’ve worked on. I probably rewrote it more than anything else.”
The structure of the book is unusual as novels go. We talked about the the choices he made. There are seven titled chapters. Each of these chapters is comprised of Roman numeraled parts. For me, the result felt like excavating layers of a character’s experience, going deeper beneath the story rather than progressing broadly across a chronology. That isn’t to say that the plot stalls. We’re propelled powerfully toward an inevitable conclusion as Tee and the rest of the community in Prague suffer a cataclysmic flood.
For Salesses, the structure of the novel originated from the process of writing itself, to allow himself to write without preconceived notions of the length of a chapter: “I didn’t want to be limited by what a chapter is, you know, ten pages, you know what to expect. I wanted to see where I could go, not be limited by a set idea of pages that should be in a chapter.”
In describing his experience writing The Hundred-Year Flood, Salesses refers to the ways he kept the novel alive for himself. Salesses: “I had fun, kept myself going with these jokes that only I knew about.” The jokes are apparent in the beauty of the language. I passed Salesses’s novel to my daughter warning her that it would be a book she wouldn’t be able to put down. “Settle in for a ride,” I told her.