A Bru­tal Design

  • Review
By – January 29, 2024

Zachary Solomon’s A Bru­tal Design takes us to Duma, an exper­i­men­tal and utopi­an city com­posed of refugees from var­i­ous near­by wars and crises. These crises are near­by geo­graph­i­cal­ly, but also polit­i­cal­ly; and ear­ly on we see that the com­mu­nist, social­ist, and — most crit­i­cal­ly — fas­cist ten­den­cies that Duma’s pop­u­la­tion once sought to flee have very much made their way into the city’s mys­te­ri­ous governance. 

Our guide for the jour­ney is Samuel Zel­nik, a Jew­ish archi­tec­ture stu­dent whose main draw to Duma is that his most prob­a­ble alter­na­tive is the Gulag. Which is not to say that he isn’t inter­est­ed in the exper­i­men­tal utopia — he is — but he also regards the project with skep­ti­cism. Zelnik’s goal, for instance, is to find his long-lost uncle in this place where fam­i­ly and past are uni­lat­er­al­ly erased. Because the nar­ra­tor is a new­com­er and not a devo­tee, the nov­el feels close in tone to Kafka’s The Cas­tle, which is clear­ly an inspi­ra­tion. Duma itself man­ages to be kafkaesque with­out being deriv­a­tive. It does so in three impor­tant ways: size, speed, and art. 

First, the sheer size and scope of Duma is incred­i­ble, and Solomon’s atten­tion to detail is keen. From a com­plex hous­ing sys­tem, to a labor plan, to a land­scape that stretch­es from desert to sea, Duma is a well-con­ceived and well-exe­cut­ed world. It’s com­plete, con­sis­tent, and utter­ly dystopian. 

Then there’s the speed of the nov­el, which — in just under 250 pages — intro­duces us to Duma both as it’s meant to be and as it actu­al­ly is. We then watch as these two dis­crep­an­cies col­lide. Zelnik’s real trou­bles begin almost imme­di­ate­ly, when he is assigned to man­u­al labor instead of the antic­i­pat­ed archi­tec­ture work. Any­thing but a philo­soph­i­cal nov­el that shies away from action, A Bru­tal Design main­tains a furi­ous pace.

And yet this is, at its heart, a philo­soph­i­cal nov­el. Con­cerned with the inter­sec­tion of fas­cism and art, Solomon explores the rela­tion­ship between the urge to cre­ate and the urge to dom­i­nate. The mes­sage seems to be that, in a world in which not everybody’s vision is the same, dif­fer­ences are going to have to be resolved, either by con­ces­sion or force. It is the urge to bring an imag­ined utopia into phys­i­cal exis­tence, then, that is respon­si­ble for the cre­ative urge, but also the dom­i­neer­ing one.

If the nov­el has a weak point, it is that the pop­u­la­tion of Duma (aside from Zel­nik) lacks the resis­tance to polit­i­cal abuse that one would expect such refugees to exhib­it. It’s inter­est­ing that direct vic­tims of this abuse could be so naive. Had Duma been pre­sent­ed as a cap­i­tal­ist heav­en, its appeal would have been clear. But the social­ist utopia as cure for failed social­ist utopias seems like a hard sell. Because of this, we are some­times left won­der­ing how the city came to be, and what its appeal was to those who labored to build it.

Still, it’s a minor con­cern that’s large­ly eclipsed by Solomon’s point about the con­nec­tion between fas­cism and art. With clear, mus­cu­lar prose and a world that comes to life in all its strange detail, A Bru­tal Design is a strong debut from an author with some­thing to say.

Daniel H. Tur­tel is the author of the nov­els The Fam­i­ly Mor­fawitz and Greet­ings from Asbury Park, win­ner of the Faulkn­er Soci­ety Award for Best Nov­el. He grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in math­e­mat­ics and received an MFA from the New School. He now lives in New York City.

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