Like a skilled magician, Charles Baxter, author of The Soul Thief, messes with reality just enough to transport the reader into an ominous fog of “tomorrow-plus-today” — Baxter’s shorthand for interwoven timelines. In his supernatural thriller, The Sun Collective (Pantheon), a cultist new age movement has taken root in the modern-day city of Minneapolis. The evils of Capitalism have created an impoverished population for middle-class do-gooders to feel better about themselves. It’s a precarious social balance with tensions brimming below the surface.
Timothy, a young actor psychologically fractured by the stress of his craft, disappears into the dark bowels of the city, looking for his “rock bottom” among the hungry, the homeless and the addicted. His father, Harold Brettigan, a practical man and retired engineer, paces the Utopian mall lost in time and space, afraid he may be a cold-blooded murderer. His mother, Alma, is a naive woman with telekinetic tendencies and a suggestible nature — not a good combination. Both are desperate to find their son.
FROM SLIGHTLY ODD TO DELIGHTFULLY BIZARRE
We meet Brettigan taking what seems to be a regular subway ride to the mall, but mysterious characters suddenly appear from the fog, leaving clues that will bring him and his wife closer to the inner workings of the Sun Collective, a powerful cult. Enter Dr. Alver L. Jefferson, a peculiar man who just happens to be on the same train. In a bizarre exchange, he gives Brettigan instructions for conjuring a spell to improve his medical condition — a piece of advice that has some odd paranormal consequences. It’s a daring literary move, and in the hands of any other writer would seem campy, but Baxter, a seasoned novelist and National Book Award finalist, has the skills to introduce these outlandish details without their seeming out of place in the narrative.
In the mall, Brettigan finds a forbidden pamphlet on the ground titled “The Survival Manifesto.” The Sun Collective is actively recruiting members, but he thinks nothing of it. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his wife, who has been looking for answers, becomes deeply involved with the same underground group, drawn to their mandates of love, charity and peace. Is it possible someone has heard of or seen her son?
As the Sun Collective grows with a sinister purpose, we meet a new recruit: a sexy, smart bank teller named Christina. She is a white-collar junkie addicted to a drug called Telephone that leaves her unable to distinguish between the past, present and future. Unpredictable and conflicted, she lives in the world as a haphazard seer.
Christina meets an urban nomad named Ludlow, a wannabe anarchist teetering on the edge of “what can be” and lost in a system that has dismissed his ideas as worthless because they have no economic value. He is dangerous and delusional, but he’s got a point. Something’s gotta give.
RHYTHMIC DIALOGUE AND A TIMELY NARRATIVE
As tensions rise, the couple finds themselves at a dinner party at Brettigan’s home. Baxter, a master of conversation between couples, brilliantly juggles all four characters as they discuss their political and personal relationships along with their commitment to the Sun Collective. With Brettigan and Alma, Baxter delivers a stream of consciousness dialogue that’s intricate, painful, hopeful and desperate — there’s a rhythm to it, like a low humming. With the addition of Christina and Ludlow, that rhythm becomes more dynamic, like jazz. But no one is on the same page. Timothy is still missing. And timelines diverge.
When the government fully commits to blend the immoral aspects of Capitalism under the rule of a dictator, the characters and the reader are forced to look inward and ask themselves How long do I wait until I act? and What action do I take?
There is an eerie sense of urgency to this novel. It’s timely, highlighting autocratic tendencies and the increasing grasp of Capitalism while suspending us in Baxter’s “tomorrow-plus-today.” But questions remain: Where is Timothy? And what is the Sun Collective hiding?
For those who enjoy thrillers, action and mystery with a healthy dose of political tension that incorporates dystopian and supernatural elements, The Sun Collective is a must-read. I highly recommend it.