REVIEW: “Henosis” by N. K. Jemisin

Review of N. K. Jemisin, “Henosis”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Henosis” is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but with a literary, and structural, twist. Harkim is an author in a world where, each year, the winner of the prestigious Opus Award is killed and portioned up; their parts distributed to large institutions as inspiration for the next generation of writers. If you smell a metaphor for toxic literary culture just wait until you get to the section on Vonnegut.

Harkim is kidnapped by a fan who believes Harkim will win the prize, and wants to keep him alive. Yet, despite the deadly consequences of taking home the prize, Harkim and his fellow writers desperately want to win this award. Winning means they, and their work, will always be remembered, and their great fear is being forgotten. The Opus Award, as brutal as it is, would guarantee Harkim a permanent place in the literary canon.

Harkim’s view is allowed much sway in this story, giving the whole tale a creepy ‘inside the cult’ feel, but the story also interrogates his views on The Opus Award. First, it provides a counterpoint view from Harkim’s kidnapper who values the life of her favourite author. She believes the award means ‘…they think you’ve done all you’re going to do, the best you’ll ever do. It means they stop listening.’ She also presents a forceful argument about the despicable way authors are picked apart after their death.  

And then there are those chapter headings.

“Henosis” is presented in short, out of order chapters, beginning with Chapter 4. By including these chapter headings, N. K. Jemisin deliberately disrupts the connection between the reader and Harkim’s story; pushing the reader to ask whether the story they are reading is the construct of an invisible author (other than Jemisin). Are Harkim and his world “real”, or is his tale of awards and kidnap a story written by an author that Jemisin has created but the reader never meets? If the reader is supposed to suspend disbelief and approach Henosis as they would any other story? And, if Harkim’s story is a work of fiction within a work of fiction, should the reader trust his conclusions about The Opus Award, ‘great men’, and the value of a good death for a writer?

By calling into question the reality of Harkim’s world, Jemisin also places the role of the real life author front and centre. The reader is reminded that each story is created by someone, and that authors make deliberate choices when crafting a story. This reminder that authors shape fiction is reinforced by the story’s subject matter which is all about an author. The out of order nature of the chapters really hammers this theme home as well, making “Henosis” rather a circular puzzle of a story. This makes it both frustrating and intriguing – one of those stories guaranteed to have the reader angrily scowling about ‘what is true’.  And that’s sure to make “Henosis” memorable at least.