Briarpatch is about Darrin, who witnesses his girlfriend jumping off a bridge months after she left him with no explanation. He knows she left him for a mysterious man named Ismael Plenty. Unconvinced that his girlfriend would kill herself, he uncovers a bizarre consipiracy, engineered by Ismael Plenty, and centering around himself.
Darrin and Ismael are Briarpatch babies, though Darrin is unaware of this. Of uncertain origin, the Briarpatch babies have the ability to step into a series of interconnected worlds of varying degrees of probablility: some with hospitals that include machines that heal you by taking better bodies from alternate versions of yourself, some where you might be attacked by werebears. Ismael wants to find the perfect world, the one where the light itself causes you to forget all need and be perfectly satisfied. Because, you see, Briarpatch babies are immortal. And immortals get bored, and despair, and want to move on to the afterlife. At least Ismael does.
To learn to see the Briarpatch, you generally need some sort of shock. Ismael has decided to drive Darrin to despair. He convinced Darrin's ex-girlfriend to kill herself (to get to the light of another world - a way denied to Immortals). He convinced Darrin's BFF to get Darrin fired. Then he staged an affair between Darrin's BFF and his new girlfriend. Nothing quite works out the way Ismael wants to, though. Darrin is made of sterner stuff.
Briarpatch is a really low key, personality driven fantasy. I liked it because of the themes. It contrasts delight in life with a yearning for transcendence to create what is essentially an anti-dualist fable. There may be something wonderful in the next world, but this is the one you have to kick around in until you get there. Darrin and some of the cohort he picks up on the way, including an ex-suicide haunted by Darrin's ex-girlfriend, and a man driving an automobile from an alternate detroit around the Briarpatch in order to find a version of his wife so that he can ask her if she commited suicide, or just sat too long in an enclosed garage, all have engaging voices. They are driven but not anxious, despairing but still curious about the world. They all are dealing with the question of why we continue to exist in the face of disapointment in small but pragmatic ways. It may turn out to be the great question of secular life, once we are free of disease and war. Darrin is not a passive man, but the loss of the love of his life has made him so, and learning to love his life gives him freedom again.
I also liked it because it's it pretty, surrealist book. The touristy trips into the Briarpatch are filled with glossy snapshots of irreality: vampire bars where you tip the bartender in blood, the Pontiac Wendigo itself, and city ruled by bees will feed the heads of people who like some Dali with their Drama.
It is very low key fantasy. It's got some sex and booze and poker in it. You can't advertise for life without the elements that make it fun. If you need swords with your sorcery, this may not be for you. If you're not up for a read with a little bit of meditation, save it for later. But if you want something pretty and meditative and earthy, this would be a good next for your reading list.