Even for a work of literary fiction, this is a notably bookish effort, a heady, inventive novel with intelligent things to say about mental illness, perception, creativity and psychedelic drugs ... This novel works on numerous levels. The gradually revealed parallels between what the physicist calls his 'breakthrough in perception' and the narrator’s quest to temper his psychological pain are at once thought-provoking and stirring. Meanwhile, Brewer’s depiction of depression — particularly the agony it causes the narrator’s wife, Annie — is heartrending. And he skillfully melds empathy and humor ... Brewer, too, deserves praise for what might be called narrative fortitude. For a novelist, it’s no easy task to successfully employ books as plot engines (the narrator also has meaningful experiences with writings by W.G. Sebald, Giuseppe di Lampedusa and Geoff Dyer). Nor is it an opportunistic path to surefire best-sellerdom. Rather, it’s the work of a confident writer who isn’t beholden to convention or market considerations ... Late in The Red Arrow, Brewer’s narrator confesses his doubts about artistic originality — does it even exist? This distinctive novel suggests that it does.
... impressive ... Brewer skillfully articulate the man’s deep wells of pain and resentment in quick swings ... The dissonance between how he abstractly portrays the treatment and how it’s handled is a peculiar distraction. Brewer centers much of the narrator’s experience on the books he reads and the thin line between reading or hearing about something and experiencing it yourself ... Brewer’s precision in writing these sequences makes them feel more like fate than authorial contrivance. Brewer makes this work with matter of fact and direct prose, indulging only occasionally in an imagistic flourish to remind readers his narrator is a writer ... is more about enjoying the mysterious way these events unfold than understanding why things have happened the way they have. This contrasts sometimes uncomfortably with the life and aims of the Physicist, who seeks, as scientists tend to do, to ask the right questions and find the right answers. Brewer, in the end, ties some ends that would have been better left loose ... When The Red Arrow wraps up, its handling is more interesting than it is satisfying. But, as the book’s structure implies, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
... much more grounded and character-based than the Pynchonian setup might suggest ... Brewer’s evocation of the Mist is among the most accurate and insightful depictions of depression I’ve ever read. The metaphor of the fog is serviceable, though not particularly original, and the way the narrator characterizes his mental struggles is illuminating ... Brewer is also a poet, a fact reflected in some of the novel’s exquisite language, but he is often at his best when he is most novelistic, as in his sneakily long sentences, some of which stretch on for more than a page. It’s a testament to his skill, and his transfixing language, that readers may not even register their length ... The narrator’s depression runs deep and nearly leads him to suicide numerous times. His transformation into a fully cured and functioning adult stretches credulity. But as an examination of mental health, of how physics and art and consciousness all have their role to play in it — are indeed intertwined with it — and as a novel of ideas that also creates a fully fleshed narrator with a convincing inner life, The Red Arrow succeeds. It is a beguiling and ruminative synthesis of strange couplings: art and physics, psychology and psychedelics, characters and ideas.
In its aesthetics and ontology, The Red Arrow is a throwback to the pre-alt-lit tradition of autofiction as cunningly mutilated truth. And yet Brewer’s reflexive credulity toward contemporary lit-tropes (American culture is traumatic! Self-help is cool again! Shrooms are meds now!) vibes way harder with Lin’s Leave Society than Sebald’s The Emigrants. Rather than engage in Bloomian agon with the contested tradition to which he may well be an heir, Brewer tends toward evasion, hedged bets, and a patina of middle school mysticism in the vein of Hermann Hesse and Richard Bach. The Red Arrow is beautiful, ambitious, whip-smart, and achingly sad. It is at all times astonishingly confident, and never commanded less than my full attention, even when highly dubious narrative decisions left me extremely pissed off, unsure of what Brewer was playing at, of whether he had outsmarted me or himself ... ome of the finest passages in The Red Arrow are serial sentences that blossom into pages of poetic detail, delivered with an acrobatic syntactical precision worthy of comparison with the great Donald Antrim, with whom Brewer also shares an unflinching honesty about the experience of living with a brain that keeps trying to trick you into murdering yourself. But then you turn the page and hit another tedious sidebar: writing about writing, drug-trip minutiae, a commercial for Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind ... on the whole, the decisions about where to be exactingly journalistic and where to be maddeningly coy are, well, maddening ... I don’t care how fastidious your endnote is: giving Johnson’s work away like this is bullshit. It’s an offense to the memory of the man and well beneath the dignity of a writer as talented, compelling, and important as I continue to believe that William Brewer is, or will be when he gets past forcing pseudo-intellectual head games into works of art that are already heady enough, and intellectual enough, without them ... loved most of this novel. I hated some of it, and the parts that I hated I hated a lot. I would have read a Shadow Country’s worth of the West Virginia-in-the-’90s material, and/or the writings on depression, while quantum physics, poetry school, publishing-biz satire, and Michael Pollan could have all been left on the cutting-room floor. But in the end, if you’re asking me if I would recommend this book, the answer is an easy yes, because Brewer is a writer whose early promise is already proven and who may well be on the cusp of his major work. Also because when dudgeon gets this high, some second-guessing is salutary. (Now who’s hedging his bets?) Maybe the meta-dramatic struggle at the heart of The Red Arrow is that of contemporary autofiction’s ongoing attempt to escape itself, to step out of its own lengthening shadow and into the light of whatever comes next. If that’s the case—which is itself debatable—then I don’t think we’re there yet, but I could believe that we’re on the way.
... cerebral, somewhat muddled ... Brewer addresses the challenges of describing a historical disaster, psychic pain, and the knotty realities of spacetime, with his protagonist openly admitting his failure to do so. The written attempts, though, often verge on the elliptical monologues of True Detective, and not in a good way. In the end, this doesn’t quite cohere.