Go, the new novel from Pittsburgh author Zoje Stage, is a psychological thriller that places its main characters and readers in the heart of the Grand Canyon, a place described as both awe-inspiring beauty and a sharp death trap.
But as it takes place in the Grand Canyon, it builds on Stage’s efforts to process the filming of Tree of Life, when, on October 27, 2018, 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood were murdered in what has been determined to be an anti-Semitic hate crime.
Stage says she wrote this like the opening scenes of her book as a way to deal with what had happened.
“Even now, if you go up Squirrel Hill, there are still the crochet stars of David hanging from the trees and the parking meters,” Stage explains. “And, you know, at first it was really hard to see that everyday for weeks and months in a row. I understand why they were there. They were very respectful signs and people were really supporting the community. . But for me, it was kind of trigger to see that. ”
The novel follows our protagonist, Imogen, a writer who fell into a sophomore slump with her second novel. Imogen is called by her sister, Beck, and her ex-girlfriend Tilda, for a trip to the Canyon after surviving a traumatic event.
In the first pages of Go, I was already in a place of unease. The traumatic event that Imogen survives is essentially a fictional version of the set for Tree of Life, and while there are moments that set it apart from the events of that day, in general, it is portrayed quite close to the tragedy. .
Departure Go this way creates a problem for me as a reader. When you create a script based on an actual event, you run the risk of reality colliding with the fiction that you have created as a writer. The rest of the book, the fear it tries to create, the dread and the terror, all pale in comparison to the actual event it is based on. I became trapped in the memory of October 27, 2018 and couldn’t get out of it to really delve into the rest of the book.
The synopsis and teasers around the book mention that once Imogen, Beck and Tilda arrive at the Canyon, they realize that they are not alone. Wondering what they encountered is what prompted me to go through half of the book where they meet what followed them. Warning: if you don’t want to know what will come next, buy the book before continuing as spoilers follow.
I was wondering, is this something supernatural? is he an ax murderer? is it a wild animal? All of these possibilities ran through my head until we met the villain of the story, a man named Gale. Gale followed the women for most of their journey. What appears to be a meeting with a seemingly harmless but unwanted guest becomes an uphill struggle for their lives.
Gale, it is revealed, is on the run from police after being arrested for a routine traffic stop and shooting the officer. Part of his motivation is to avoid going back to jail, the other is trying to see his daughter. He finds himself in the Canyon on his way to her and thus begins the deadly standoff between him, Imogen, Beck and Tilda.
Imogen, of all the women, seems to be the most sympathetic to Gale when she hears her story. Although he consistently calls Tilda “Mexican” and uses homophobic slurs to refer to Beck, Imogen notes that the American criminal justice system devours people and leaves them no room to reform, change, and grow.
Stage explains his approach to writing Gale as trying to make him more than a monster.
“My real pleasure in writing novels is having a character who is blatantly evil, who seems like someone you can never sympathize with. And then trying to create them in layers so that you have those moments where, like, “Oh, maybe this person isn’t 100% evil,” says Stage. “And just a different perspective of what it means when we dismiss someone as being a certain way.” If we knew them on a more intimate level, would we think differently from them? And while I think Imogen does sometimes with the nature of her imagination and the way she functions, she goes a little too far in trying to feel connected to him.
I like a good, complex character. But something about Gale’s characterization didn’t suit me. Despite Imogen’s struggle to see him as a human, he’s ultimately just a bogeyman that women encounter in their quest to become stronger themselves. Maybe as a reader I am as naive as Imogen, who wants to see the humanity of someone, especially someone who has been a victim of the criminal justice system. But every move Gale makes feels out of character with someone who doesn’t want to go back to jail. From shooting the cop to taking three women hostage, he’s categorically making matters worse for himself when he could have just done what he planned to do and visit his daughter and granddaughter.
Imogen, haunted by being a survivor of this shooting, is also traumatized by a secret she has kept for years. What she still calls “The Thing” slowly turns out to be a college sexual assault at the hands of Tilda’s boyfriend at the time. “The Thing” stunned Imogen so much that she couldn’t even call it that until her sister, Beck, brought it up in the Canyon.
As a reader, I couldn’t help but wonder why the sexual assault was not enough trauma for Imogen. Why did she have to be a survivor of a mass shooting as well as a victim of sexual assault? Was there a need to bring up the filming of Tree of Life if we make Imogen a survivor of something else?
It is true that people can survive several traumatic events in their life, but I have found in novels and movies that it is common to put the female protagonist through hell to “harden her”, for make her realize that she is strong and capable. in the end, I wondered how necessary Imogen’s suffering was.
Although I had some trouble finishing the book, I have to give Stage its flowers for the prose, especially as I neared the end of the novel. The final fight scene between Imogen and Gale is haunting and eerie. For a book that I thought I lost to myself, this scene really brought me back.
Stage says the scene still makes her skin crawl and considers it one of the most disturbing things that happens in the book.
Go is partly about the harm done by men and the victims they leave in their wake. This is a powerful and necessary thing to explore, as we see men in a position of being able to harm over and over again, especially women.
Go is definitely a thriller, but as Stage says, there’s a lot of psychological play involved, especially when the women are with their captor for much of the book. You wonder when and if they will be free.
In the end, it reminded me of a horror movie, a movie that I have a hard time sitting down with and wanting to move quickly because of my discomfort. Stage is a talented writer who knows how to create a world, and I appreciate that she adds complexity to her characters, but ultimately I think the book gets stuck in the first few pages. Wanting to know what ailments they will encounter distracts you from reading any further, but the Canyon Villain isn’t as scary as the Canyon itself, or the actual event the front pages are based on.