[Review] Bulb – Bradley Wind

Welcome back to the next review 🙂 Today we’re looking at Bulb, by Bradley Wind.

Full disclosure – I received this book for free as part of the TBRinder advance review program for indie authors.

If light records everything we do, can even shadows hide our secrets?

Imagine your entire life is available for review.

Imagine each day any event can be watched over and over again – your birth, your first kiss, your recent shower, that private itch – all replayable from any angle. Now imagine these can be viewed by anyone at any time.

Is a world where there is far less ego, little crime, and even the smallest moments are recorded and available publicly through the ‘Grand Archive’ a Utopia or a Dystopia? Traumatized by memories he does not want to recall, artist Ben Tinthawin is recruited by the enigmatic, Grand Archive creator Dr. Mamon, who seeks help for his nextgen designs to enhance the world. Ben stumbles across a secret revealing the doctor’s true scheme in all its surreal splendor and questions whether the doctor really is the benevolent soul he claims to be.As the paths of a broken man and a brilliant revolutionary cross, the world shifts and cracks start to appear. Even our most fundamental codes can be encrypted – or corrupted. If the wrong information is discovered, more than Ben’s life will be in danger of total shut down.

Prepare yourself for full exposure.

Please note – This book and review are 18+.  Topics will be discussed ranging from sexual acts involving minors to rape.  Read at your own discretion.

You all know the drill.  We’re going to take a look at Bulb, beginning with things that worked for me, moving into things that didn’t, and then we’ll swing back for an overall ‘feel’ on the book.  Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped, and so my points will be accompanied by excerpts from the texts to substantiate what I’m talking about where necessary.

But first!

Let’s start with the positives, before we get into it 🙂

What worked for me with Bulb?

First and foremost, I was really impressed by the unique ideas presented in Bulb.  The book centers around the idea that all of our experiences are constantly logged and archived – and that archive can be viewed by anyone.  It’s a very black mirror-esque take on a dystopian society, and in a good way. It’s not *new*, and everyone’s used to it, so society has just…moved on.  I liked that this facet of society was more a setting for the story that happened, rather than the problem itself.

To top that off, I was fascinated by the idea of Saints – essentially, people placed into comas by scientists, volunteers who donate their minds and bodies to fuel the research of this society.  Our main character Ben’s job, then, is an interesting one. He ‘paints’ images out of biochemicals, which show up in the Saints’ frozen minds as dreams and daydreams. He moves from patient to patient, reading a short journal written by the Saint before they slept, and then paints them an image.

I found these ideas really interesting, and something that I haven’t seen before.  The idea of a man who can influence others’ minds through chemicals – and have it approached as an art form rather than some form of bizarre assault – I’d read a book on that alone. 

Second, I found moments of Wind’s descriptions to be absolutely stunning.  Now and again, there’d be a scene where I was left with a perfect mental image, and this novel is a very visual-heavy piece.  Being able to visualize the lush petals of the flowers and how they melded and interacted with the flesh and bone of the characters was a really unique aesthetic, and it was really given quite vivid imagery.

More on the story side of things, finally, I felt that Bulb did a really good job of creating tension and suspense, once the story began.  The mood of it was quite solid, and partly due to how Bulb is structured, the slow transition between normal life and “something’s not right” did give a very spooky effect.  I enjoyed that very much.

What didn’t work for me, then?

All right.  As usual, I’m going to approach these sorts of topics in categories, beginning with the ones I felt were least impactful and moving toward the ones that were most important in my eyes.  A lot of these things overlap, but for the sake of organization, I’m going to clump them together in the way that best makes sense to me.

Let’s get this started, then.

Character actions and believability

So – the first point that I’d like to bring up as something that struck me as a little off but not necessarily in a book-breaking way, was the way in which characters acted and influenced the story.

I’m going to look at one example in particular, as an series of events early in the book that seemed a little off-putting with this topic.

As stated in the initial section, Bulb is based around the concept that people’s memories are recorded and stored, and are available for the general public to rewatch.  This leads to a scenario where characters can revisit memories whenever they like, essentially.

Early on, and in the blurb itself, it’s told to us that the main character Ben has some traumatic memories that he doesn’t really want to face, but he keeps getting brought face to face with.  We learn quickly that he was involved in a car crash, where his father died and he was severely injured.

Okay.  So. Initially, the details about this crash are sort of dripped out organically, with little hints and tidbits.  I was picking up what Wind was putting down. I really enjoy that sort of piece by piece storytelling.

And then, at a certain point, when Ben visits his friend, she abruptly ends their previous conversation about a woman he’s met, and informs him that they’re going to review his memories of the crash.

Just like that.  Without any preamble, they simply go and watch his most traumatic memories.  Just like that.

Again, I don’t think this was book-breaking for me.  But it just seemed wildly off that she would approach him like that, and he didn’t seem to have any more than the most mild resistance to it.  I’ve had traumatic memories myself, incidents where people around me died and bad things happened. I think many people have.  And if a friend casually told me that we should go relive those most traumatic moments of my life, out of the blue, I would tell that friend to fuck off.

Now, there are explanations given later in the book as to why she was behaving this way, but it still had all the subtlety of a crowbar when it happened, and that’s what stuck with me.

On some level, I also feel as though this memory archive was used as a cheat code, to easily and quickly offload the situation onto the reader.  I don’t know if I’d feel that way if the narrative was approached more head-on to begin with – but it felt like the story was committing to a slow and steady drip-feed approach, and then got tired of it and decided to just dump-truck Ben’s traumatic past onto the reader.

This was the most notable example for me that made me scratch my head, but there were other little moments like a pen pal Ben gets a letter from identifying her age in literally the first sentence they exchange.  These were just interactions that didn’t feel like things characters would actually do – but were shortcuts for Wind to more easily pass along detail to the reader. Past a certain point, it did start to damage my immersion in the story.

Paragraphing and Comprehension

As will be described later, there are some odd quirks about this book that can make it a little hard to follow.  But more than that, at times I felt like the structure of the book was working against me.

It might seem like a small thing, something more in the background and less to do with the writing itself, but especially in high-action or chaotic scenes, I felt like the paragraphing in Bulb was poorly handled.  I read on my phone, by and large, with the font turned as small as it will go so that I can get more on every page.  Even with that, then, it was very common for me to turn the page and find the whole screen filled with a single paragraph or two.  

It was a little overwhelming, and when characters were running around doing things with a high intensity, it became very difficult to follow.  The content of the novel is surreal anyway, which made the text that much harder to process. Together with that, I think that some additional care toward making sure sentences didn’t get too long and paragraphs were an appropriate length would have been a huge help to making this story accessible.

Sex and Shock Value

Here’s where the 18+ rating starts to come in, I think.  I’ll note before I begin that Bulb has no indications that there’s anything that might be 18+ in it, or any trigger warnings or such.  I can understand that this is hardly a smut novel, and plastering it with warnings would go too far in the other direction, but some of this content deserved a mention in the foreword section, in my opinion.

Bulb establishes early on that this society has advanced beyond some of our own hangups about sexuality, nudity, and the human condition.  Cool. I can get behind that idea. From there, though, it feels very much as though sexual content and nudity has been sprinkled in, tossed into chapters as something to make things feel different from other novels.

Some of this is a little bit weird, but fine, like Ben’s friend Lenny being a nudist.  I find that it doesn’t add anything to the story and is a touch obtrusive, but it doesn’t actively bother me.

What bothers me more is that at certain moments, sex and sexual acts seem to be used as a tool, and in some of these situations, I don’t find it appropriate or even acceptable with how it’s done.  Two notable examples come to mind.

The first example (In I believe chapter four no less – so right at the start) features a indigenous boy copulating with a flowering tree, as part of a ‘second birth’ ritual.  The ritual is unsuccessful, the act fails, and the boy dies.

Now, on rereading, I can start to see where this scene ties into the ending of the story.  But on my first read-through, this scene didn’t connect with anything we’d done or learned about so far, and so it was just a boy having sex with a flower and then dying.  I think the fact it was explicitly said to be a minor didn’t sit well with me, to begin with.

More than that, though, it just felt unnecessary.  The book as a whole centers on the sort of idea of a merging of human bodies with plants, and so I can understand perhaps what was sought after here, but there would have to be ways to express this that didn’t have a boy graphically bumping uglies with a plant – especially when the readers don’t have the first clue why this is happening. 

Having this series of events was a conscious choice, and when it doesn’t connect to anything else, it makes it feel like it was done purely for shock value.  To be honest, I really hadn’t signed up for this sort of content when I picked up the book, and I don’t feel it was handled meaningfully enough to justify including it.  For a blurb and cover that sold me on a black-mirror style dive into the human psyche with a surrealist spin on top, this type of thing caught me off guard and unprepared.

The second incident, though, has gotten a bit stuck in my craw, and really tarnished my opinion of the novel.  At a certain point, Ben dives back into his memories, to relieve the aftermath of the car crash.

Specifically, a younger Ben fled the scene of the crash, direly injured himself and desperate to find help for his family, and sought aid from a nearby home.  Inside, he finds the residents – a man and woman, and two ‘Downs Syndrome young men’, and seeks their help. Instead, they believe him to be on his deathbed.

Since he’s dying anyway, they give him to the morbidly obese, mentally impaired woman they keep locked in their back room, who rapes him.

Now, of course, I do feel I have to mention that when this memory is brought up between him and his friend from earlier, she handles it with all the subtlety you’d expect.

Okay.  So that’s what happens.  I…need to unpack my feelings on this whole series of events a little, because this is a lot.  First off, I immediately found the use of mental illnesses as a tool to facilitate this…distasteful.  Really, really distasteful. It felt like these illnesses were being thrown in as a way to simply deus ex a situation for sexual assault to happen, rather than having to come up with characters and scenarios that play out in that way.  Like, when he walks into the room and characters are immediately called out for their medical conditions, that was a giant red flag going around and around my head as I read it.

And then we come to the act itself.  I do think that something like rape should be handled delicately.  I think that Wind did a fairly decent job in that it certainly wasn’t a scene that glorified rape.  There was little way to read that scene and see someone getting their rocks off to it.  I can’t say that about every book I’ve reviewed, so I do appreciate that. But more than anything, I return to the same point I made about the flower sex.

It just felt unnecessary.

In the end, it served essentially no purpose.  Ben is never particularly affected by it, besides for some extremely odd nightmares and occasional dark memories.  It never impacts how he does his job, or interacts with his younger brothers. It’s just a throwaway plot point to give him a tragic past, and I do find that to be a massive no-no in fiction.

Worse was when his romantic interest revealed that she too was raped, in their second correspondence.  Because of course.  Now they can bond over having been raped. Never mind that if this was such a fresh wound, I find it hard to believe a woman would be so comfortable revealing it to a complete stranger. It’s implausible.

Eventually, you find out that the memories of the rape were in fact falsified, and Ben was never raped at all.  It was used as a cover to mask other memories as Ben was toyed with by the Big Bad.  

I found this whole situation…frustrating, and odd.  Ben still has the memories of being raped.  Even if it’s real or not, that doesn’t change the impact on the person.  And this truly goes to show that the rape itself was just selected because it’s shocking.  If the memory was false, anything could have been picked. A car could have driven past as he stayed with his mother and father at the crash scene, knocking a rock from its tires and hitting him in the head.  He could’ve slipped in the torrential rain and struck his head on the debris. 

But instead, a very serious topic was inserted because it’s known to be traumatic and dramatic and shocking, and it wasn’t given the development and care I would have expected to see.

Unfortunately, that’s the part that stuck with me.

Pacing and Surrealism

Bulb is a surrealist piece.  There’s really no arguing that.  The cover itself sets that tone, although I can say the blurb does not. I think if someone simply read the blurb, and skimmed past the cover, they would not pick up on the tone that this novel truly has.

But, okay.  I’m fine with that.  I’ve read some odd stuff before.

The problem for me came in where the surrealist prose and events began to overpower the story itself.  When I read through the blurb, I was legitimately excited. It sounded like a neat concept – that when we base our own selves off a record that is widely accessible, it opens vulnerabilities in our own identities.  I liked the idea of people being manipulated from within.

The deeper and deeper I read into the chapters without seeing this concept of Ben realizing something’s not right, the more off-center I felt.  I kept expecting to see something happen with this grand research facility that was introduced and the ominous situation promised in the blurb.  Instead, the characters went tornado riding, and to orgies, and dreamt of their new relationship.

That isn’t to say that a story has to be laser-focused on the plot, but at times, the weird became hard to follow and process.  It didn’t have the context it needed, although with the context that came later in the book I can again better guess at things while I reread. Instances like Ben and Lenny dressing up as presidents and thinking about what genetic illnesses they’d had (ostensibly because people didn’t have those illnesses anymore).

Sometimes, lines would be spoken and I’d have no idea at all what just happened.

I can appreciate the idea of fiction being surreal, but I do think that in Bulb’s case, at times it made the actual important parts hard to recognize from amidst the sea of…everything else.  It felt like a drug trip – and while that may have been Wind’s intent, on some level, more than anything it just made me feel lost and adrift without any meaningful plot or anchors to hold onto.

And here we get to my core issue.

With all of this, with all of my own impatience and searching desperately for a plot thread to surface, the first moment where I latched onto something and said “this, this is the lead-in for the storyline, here it is” came at 50% of the way through the novel.

Halfway through.  And while Bulb isn’t as big as some novels I’ve read, it’s not short.  And I’ll be fair – I do think that Wind probably had been building up atmosphere and world through that 50%, establishing characters and settings and laying all the plot threads he was going to be calling upon, but they just weren’t recognizable through the chaos.  They got lost, somewhere along the way. And so it wound up feeling like nothing of meaningful significance happened.

If I hadn’t been reading for a review, if I didn’t have that reason to keep going and push through, would I have made it to the actual story, or would I have stopped after nothing seemed to be happening?  I asked myself that question a lot. And if I was just a random reader, to be perfectly truthful, I don’t think I would have made it far enough for the actual good content to seep through.

And this is the part that left me conflicted – From about 70% to 90%, the content is actually pretty darn good.  Once things get moving, they get moving, as though the story is trying to make up for lost time.  Mammon Mamon, who is introduced as the big bad in the blurb, is finally shown in his true colors, and Ben has to race against time to save his little brothers.

It was really good.  But it was also really rushed, and with Mamon stated as being antagonistic in the blurb, it left me itchy and impatient for like…70% of the book.  I think I’d have enjoyed the book much more if the plot was incorporated more strongly into the rest of it.

Final Thoughts

Bulb was one of the most unique books I’ve ever read.  It takes a lot of risks and goes places other fiction doesn’t, and there’s a lot to be said for that.  In the days since I read it, I do find myself torn between the two books that seem to be spliced together within it – the core of the story, and the book that wants to explore the setting and universe.  I just don’t think these two books worked together nicely in this instance.

With that said, the creativity of this book is remarkable.  Given a hard, long look at structure and what the book is trying to accomplish, I would welcome another book from this author, as there’s a ton of potential to be had.

At this time, though, I think there’s still some progress to be made, and I wish Wind the best of luck.

Final score: 2.5/5