Where Fascism Lurks: A Review of Zachary Solomon’s A Brutal Design by Nicole Yurcaba

In the past few years, an alarming number of scholars, historians, and social commentators have established and upheld the view that fascism is on the rise in the United States and that the democratic values on which the US prides itself are under severe attack. However, since Donald Trump emerged on the political scene with a (rather frightening) rhetoric that adamantly attacks and blames immigrants for America’s headaches, openly hails dictators like Vladimir Putin, and harshly polices the LGBTQ+ community, a new kind of extremism has taken hold of an alarming number of Americans. Thus, when a novel like Zachary Solomon’s A Brutal Design enters the literary arena, one cannot help but read it and ponder its message about how fascism lurks quietly in socio-political theaters until it appears fully and undeniably—and by then it is too late.

In A Brutal Design, Jewish architecture student Samuel Zelnik grapples with the deaths of his parents as well as odd, abusive relationship he has with his uncle. A budding architect who fears that his next placement is in a gulag, Samuel receives an unexpected invitation—to work in the experimental utopian society of Duma. However, as Samuel explores his new home, where everything is regulated and one’s qualifications do not necessarily guarantee one’s job placement in Duma, he quickly learns that all utopias, despite their grand literal and figurative architectures, possess dark, brutal origins.

When Samuel first enters Duma, he hopes for a placement as an architect. However, instead of his dream placement, Samuel is forced into manual labor, fitting together mysterious parts for buildings and or machines his coworkers cannot identify. Samuel notices the strange, cold personalities his fellow Duma inhabitants possess. Through a series of Samuel’s unusual and impersonal interactions with other minor characters, Duma’s utopian façade begins to crumble. It is as though Duma’s sterile environment manifests in its inhabitants, and Samuel notices abnormal physical changes in himself, such as increased lethargy, that he did not that he did not experience prior to entering Duma. Another peculiar scenario unfolds for Samuel during his first days in Duma: he cannot find his uncle, from whom he had received the invitation to Duma. When he questions Duma’s residents about the uncle’s whereabouts, they answer Samuel with confusion, and at times, even contempt.

The prose is direct, even though Samuel is a deep, even philosophical, character, and mirrors Duma’s sharp architecture. Samuel juxtaposes the other characters—some of whom Samuel met in the past—that readers briefly meet.  For example, Erich—Samuel’s former classmate—is a striking, unnerving, character reminiscent of real-life figures like Kyle Rittenhouse. Samuel describes Erich as the type of human who thrived on violence and became the perfect candidate for a conversion to fascism. Other characters, like Miriana Grannoff, Erich’s former art professor, exemplify how slyly and deceitfully fascists interject their ideology into their craft. Her presence in the novel conjures historical associations with figures like Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler’s official photographer; Leni Riefenstahl, the famous Nazi film propagandist; and Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect. The rigidity of characters like Erich and Miriana mirrors Duma’s societal rigidity, which enforces a strict class system, formless fashion, and an overall degradation of human will. However, A Brutal Design harbors a stark warning about what happens when people become shiftless regarding political agendas and policies. It is a warning that many in the United States and Europe should probably heed. As a small group holds the United States Congress hostage to its political will, and as the far right gains political ground in countries like Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Slovakia, a strangely disconcerting narrative from their parties resonates with the inflammatory and hurtful rhetoric espoused by characters such as Erich and Miriana.

The book also quietly introduces a few theories regarding what deems a work of art a memorial and what is the necessity of such a work? This conversation brings to mind the ethical issues and societal responsibilities to which artists must answer. Samuel observes, “There were places on Earth were terrible tragedies had occurred. Minds had conspired to preserve those places in situ, altering nothing. Letting the sight of the tragedy remain the same could serve as signifier, reminder, and warning all at once.” Samuel continues that such memorials “could inspire the prevention of similar tragedies” and that it “is one thing to stand on the floor of a museum and read about the tragedy” but it is “another entirely to stand in the tragedy itself.” Samuel’s observations harken to the many conversations surrounding dark tourism, specifically as it pertains to such places like Auschwitz, where of the 1.3 million people sent there, 1.1 million were murdered. As he reflects about how such memorials could “inspire the prevention of similar tragedies,” Samuel provides another gentle reminder—that without historical and collective memory of and education about the memorialized tragedies, what function do those memorials serve?

Similar to reading Frederika Amalia Finkelstein’s Forgetting, reading A Brutal Design is like handing over oneself to a psychologically ending experiment. It is, at times, too close for comfort in its clinical examination of fascist indoctrination and the weaponization of hate towards certain demographics. Nevertheless, it is the discomfort Samuel’s experience produces that causes readers to look inward and examine their own attitudes and behaviors—and then look outward, toward their own neighborhoods and societies, and begin waking those who are sleepwalking toward an authoritarian future.

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.