There are at least three ways by which we might classify Zachary Thomas Dodson's Bats of the Republic in order to characterize it adequately and evaluate it fairly: as a postapocalyptic narrative, as an example of the "steampunk" subgenre of science fiction, and as a so-called "illuminated" novel. Viewing it from one of these perspectives does not preclude regarding it as a creative joining of these forms (and it is one of the novel's strengths that it does blend them more or less seamlessly), but they each need to be considered carefully before coming to any conclusions about the merits of the novel as a whole.
As a postapocalyptic story it is entirely familiar and conventional. A "Collapse" has occurred, leaving the United States divided into a handful of "city-states," with most of the country reduced to a presumable wasteland the inhabitants of the city-state refer to as "the rot." The city-state in which the story is set is the "Texas Republic," which is characterized by a 1984-ish sort of authoritarian power structure. The protagonist of this story, Zeke Thomas, is in line to become a "Senator" in this power structure, but the story mostly chronicles Zeke's disillusionment with his life in the city-state and his attempt to escape it. There's the usual sort of hyper-surveillance, threatened violence, and underground resistance (in this case literally underground), making for an entirely run-of-the-mill dystopian narrative, just another offering in a genre that itself has become overworked and underinspired.
But Bats of the Republic is not simply a postapocalyptic narrative. It also features many of the conventions and motifs of steampunk, most of them quite explicitly employed. Zeke's story is paired with another set in Victorian America, focused on Zeke's presumed ancestor, Zadock Thomas (the purity of Zeke's "bloodline" is part of the conflict animating his story), who undertakes a mission to deliver a mysterious letter to an equally mysterious general just prior to the Mexican-American War. Zadock works for the Museum of Flying, operated by Joseph Gray (who sends him on the mission), and is courting Gray's daughter, Elswyth. Elswyth's deceased mother, we learn, wrote a novel called The City-State, excerpts from which, it eventually becomes clear, we are reading as the story of Zeke Thomas. It is a futuristic narrative projecting a 19th century vision of what a dystopic future might be like, complete with "advanced" steam-powered technology such as "steamsabres" possessed by law enforcement and a "steammoat" surrounding the city-state to prevent escape.
Probably fans of steampunk would appreciate Dodson's handling of its elements more than I am able to, given my limited familiarity, although the context this provides for the apocalyptic tale makes its pedestrian qualities somewhat easier to accept (and perhaps giving it some interest as a kind of literary anachronism, a version of what Orwell might have produced had he been writing a hundred years earlier). But the narrative type and genre variations offered by Bats of the Republic are further complemented by the textual embellishments that make it an "illuminated" novel. In addition to a multitude of typefaces and considerable variety in its page design, the text includes drawings, maps, diagrams, transcripts, facsimiles of letters, old newspapers, and other documents, as well as a novel-within-the-novel (a lightly fictionalized account of the Gray family), presented as a series of photocopies.
Dodson's approach is similar to that of Mark Danielewski, who similarly enhances his not otherwise very compelling narratives with various visual insertions and typographical manipulations. Bats of the Republic has more narrative substance than the generally insipid "story" underlying the textual machinations of, say, Only Revolution, but in both cases fiction as a literary form and object of aesthetic experience is replaced with an aestheticization of the book itself as object, the material construction of the book replacing our more intangible interaction solely with the written text as the focus of experience. In few cases do the visual embellishments in Bats of Republic really contribute anything that adds to or mediates the written text, most often merely reinforcing the text with literal illustrations, graphic aids, sometimes acting simply as ornaments. The visual elements are certainly well-rendered and the book as whole impressively presented (Dodson is apparently a book designer by trade, in addition to running a small press), but I for one ended up admiring the author's skill at design more than his vision of what a work of innovative fiction might accomplish.
Bats of the Republic or Only Revolution could be usefully contrasted with the work of Steve Tomasula, a writer who superficially seems to share an interest in adding visual devices to written text. But Tomasula's devices are truly integrated with his prose, adding shades of meaning, exploring the limits of the printed page, and extending the scope of prose fiction in ways that neither Danielewski nor Dodson, at least on the evidence of his first novel, seem inclineded to pursue. Tomasula's fiction expands our awareness of the boundaries fiction might challenge and still be true to the form. It makes readers consider how rigidly they should adhere to inherited assumptions about the boundaries of the form while also providing a satisfying reading experience. Tomasula tells stories, but they are narratives with intrinsic interest in and of themselves, not rehearsals of familiar plots.The experience of reading Bats of the Republic is more like witnessing a writer attempting to compensate for an otherwise lackluster story with a flashy display of extraneous decoration.
Incorporating visual elements and unsettling our "normal" access to the words on the page are justifiably "experimental" moves for an adventurous writer to make, especially since so much fiction so thoroughly aspires to a kind of visual acuity through its imagery and its tropes. Such a project highlights that aspiration and its limits, and might even encourage an exploration of the possibilities of language that don't rely on the invocation of visual imagery, which can indeed often devolve into flourishes of "fine writing." This is one of the effects of Steve Tomasula's fiction, but a novel like Bats of the Republic at best repeats the experiments of Tomasula, as well as such previous writers as William Gass, Ronald Sukenick, and Raymond Federman, without really sharing their commitment to questioning deep-seated assumptions about the aesthetic purposes of fiction. It adopts those experiments to create a pleasingly designed book that some readers might enjoy but that doesn't really work to enlarge our understanding of how fiction might continue to reinvent itself.