Jeremy C. Shipp’s Bedfellow is such a compelling, intriguing premise, and it hooks you in so effortlessly, that it’s all the more frustrating when the book just sort of…ends. It’s not that Shipp gives us an ambiguous ending, or leaves us with questions; it’s that he sets us up for a third act that never arrives, ending the book without any sense of conclusion or finality, and leaving you deeply unsatisfied. And that’s incredibly frustrating, because for a while, Bedfellow is a truly bizarre, disturbing ride.
As Bedfellow opens, the Lund family is dealing with a most unusual house-breaker – that is, one who’s coming through the window while they’re all sitting there watching TV. But after a bit of confusion, Hendrick, the family patriarch, calms everyone down. After all, this is just Marvin, everybody – you know, Marvin? The one who saved our son Tomas from choking tonight? He’s just needing a place to sleep off his drinking, and we can help with that, right? So of course Hendrick’s wife Imani and his older daughter Kennedy all accede to that. Simple enough, as a start.
But what about the next morning, when everyone is commenting on how they’ve known Marvin ever since he helped Tomas with a hurt leg several years ago? Or when they start talking about how long Marvin and Hendrick have worked together? Because, see, with each new chapter, exactly what the Lund family’s connection is to Marvin keeps changing, getting stronger and stronger, and the only ones who know are the readers. Shipp keeps slowly evolving that relationship, doling out the revelations in passing comments or old memories, and only gradually helping us to understand that whoever – or whatever Marvin is – he seems to be able to rewrite the past to make the present fit. And that means no one around him ever notices.
But Marvin’s harmless, right? Well, apart from his weird fixation on a nightmarish story about a duck with knife blades for a bill. Or the “miracle” he keeps promising. Or the gaps in people’s memories. Well, okay, maybe Marvin isn’t harmless…but what in the hell does he want?
That’s the ongoing question of Bedfellow, along with exactly how Marvin does what he does, and what happens when it all unravels. But all of those things are things that Shipp himself seems uninterested in, building all of the tensions to a head, then letting out one bit of horrific release before abruptly ending the story in a way that doesn’t really resolve anything. And while there’s an argument to be made that leaving the story this open-ended aids in its unease and atmosphere, never answering any of our questions and leaving us baffled as to what Marvin and what he wants, that doesn’t really help Bedfellow feel more complete.
And that’s frustrating, because I loved the slow unraveling of reality that Shipp creates here. Yes, the book takes its time peeling back layer after layer of reality, but given the strange conceit that Shipp’s working with, that can be forgiven. And by the time we hit the second major act, when Marvin unveils his “miracle,” things get even more bizarre and unsettling, sending the story into even more bizarre territory. All of which would be great without the deeply dissatisfying ending – or lack thereof – that ends up making you feel like you only were given two-thirds of a good story. Not that we need answers, but that we need closure and conclusion – that’s the problem with Bedfellow, and it’s a frustrating and big enough issue that it made me put down the book not eager to talk about how weird and mind-bending it was, but warning people not to read it without being prepared for an anticlimax for the ages – which, in the end, tells you what you need to know about the book.