Rules of Order, the latest offering from Jeff Vande Zande, evokes an eerie feeling of déjà vu for more than one reason. Firstly, it features a group of people forced to live together who can’t agree on, well, anything. Sound familiar? It’s like a real-life depiction of current events set against a dystopian backdrop.
Secondly, fans that have read his previous work, The Neighborhood Division, recognize the characters and the storyline. The overarching theme in that collection of stories focused on battling with the instincts of the self vs. the community. One of the stories called “Load” left readers wanting more. Not one to leave his fans hanging, Vande Zande fulfilled their wishes by expanding the short into its own novel.
In the shorter version, readers are introduced to the main character, Harvey Crowe. He has good intentions but struggles a bit with the execution. When we meet Crowe again in Rules of Order, he’s still busy trying to convince his neighbors that they must get on board with strict guidelines for weight limits in their individual apartments to protect the entire building from collapse. Although this time around, we gain more insight into his motives.
If you’re asking why they couldn’t just move to a new building, readers get the impression that’s not an option in this dystopian future. Readers aren’t told exactly how it happened, but we’re led to believe that leaving the building and venturing into the outside world is akin to an immediate death sentence. It’s effective storytelling that Vande Zande leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks on how the outside world became so inhospitable to human life.
“The bigger message I wanted to convey is that it was probably a good dose of capitalism that destroyed the outside world, and somehow, capitalism still found a way inside the building,” said Vande Zande. “It just became a microcosm of how the planet used to conduct itself. We want more for ourselves as individuals, even if we’re hurting the group.”
The sky is falling…literally
Without spoiling the storyline, it’s safe to say for most of the novel, Vande Zande taps into the reader’s anxiety with a sense of urgency about when – not if – the building will collapse. This sense of impending doom led to Falling Sky as the original title of the novel.
“It was titled Falling Sky for a long time,” said Vande Zande. “But the publisher eventually decided it was too close to some other movie and book titles and that because of it, it just wasn’t grabbing him.” Vande Zande started brainstorming a new title and kept coming back to Robert’s Rules of Order, which he used as a frequent reference when writing the board room scenes for the book. “I thought about making the new title Rules of Order and the publisher loved it.”
Of course, with Vande Zande, there always is a hidden meaning behind his book titles. Not only is Rules of Order a nod to Robert’s Rules, but it also is a play on words for how the order of society – rich vs. poor – was conducted within the building.
The book title isn’t the only aspect of Rules of Order with a double entendre. Characters’ names also carried hidden meanings. One such character is the well-to-do Gerald LaMark, one of the newest and youngest members of the apartment building board. Vande Zande said he named LaMark after the character Lamarque in Les Miserables.
“It’s kind of an homage to him because there’s a line in one of the songs that only Lamarque speaks for we people here below,” said Vande Zande. “It seemed a good parallel since LaMark speaks for the residents on the lower floors of the building.”
Two of the most interesting characters in the book are the building supervisor, Sam, and his wife, Anya. Unfortunately for Crowe, he can hear every conversation the couple has through a leaky ventilation pipe between their apartments. Most of those arguments are about how much they dislike each other.
“Some readers have shared with me that the super and his wife represent the oversharing that happens on social media these days,” said Vande Zande. “For me, they represent the existential threat of nuclear weapons that we can’t control among all the things that we try to do to protect ourselves and our planet. The whole planet can get annihilated only on our inability to get along.”
It’s hardly a surprise the building in Rules of Order is an analogy for our planet. The world is facing an ongoing climate crisis, divisiveness, and authoritarianism – all things represented within the microcosm of Crowe’s building. Sam and Anya represent the overarching feeling that we’re in the palm of a hand we can’t control and that can crush us at any moment no matter what insignificant actions we take to prevent our demise.
“The more we try, the harder we fail,” said Vande Zande. “We’re really botching it as a species.”
Looking toward the future
Readers who enjoy The Rules of Order also may want to check out Vande Zande’s 50-page novelette, Parable of Weeds, which discusses the nuances of gated communities.
It may be a while before fans of Vande Zande’s brand of dystopian writing have a new story to immerse themselves in. After writing two novels in 2020, Vande Zande said he needs some time to restore his creative juices.
Not to worry, though. He’ll be back to taking aspects of the real world, turning the volume up on them, and creating an amazing tale again in the future. For now, readers can get their copy of Rules of Order on Amazon.
Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.