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Literature / Upon This Pale Hill

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There might be some existentialism.
Upon This Pale Hill is Patrick Ashe's debut novel, published in 2020. Taking place in suburban North Carolina in 2011, it's a Coming-of-Age story about Brandon Marcel, an anxious high-achiever who's nearing college graduation and unsure of what to do with his life. External pressures (friends, family, contacts, etc.) push him toward traditional and higher-paying careers, but internal pressures steer him toward public service. This might seem virtuous at first, but there's more going on beneath the surface...

This novel covers a wide-range of topics, such as college life, the nature of friendships, the loneliness of suburbia, the "sickness" of the developed world (thus the title), millennials, economics, politics, spirituality, romance, and a bunch of rock song references. While ostensibly a novel about this common awkward period in life, it also attempts to make many statements about these topics, and ends with a sense of uncertainty about its protagonist while conversely making a more certain statement about what "do good" means (in a personal, political, and professional sense).


Upon This Pale Hill contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Released in 2020 but events span late 2010 to early 2012, when the first draft was finished (and thus the story's technology and zeitgeist would better fit).
  • Abusive Parents: Germy’s, obviously verbally in the present and physically in his recalled past.
  • Awful Truth: In The Reveal. Cue the Freak Out, Despair Event Horizon, and...something better.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Germy, hinted at lightheartedly in a few conversations with Brandon (and less lightheartedly by his homophobic father). Brandon’s sexuality is also questioned by a coworker because he shows no interest in the superficiality of scantily-clad women, but that’s all. Batshitreichwing simply identifies as gay.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Why Army Ranger Chris gets sent back home.
  • Arc Words: “Do good.” (Often met with scoffs by others, also played with during The Reveal, when Young Brandon says he wants to do well.) “Going home” and “click” are played with. “To truly think for yourself means being prepared to be by yourself” and “Hope is a four-letter word.”
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  • As the Good Book Says...: There are thinly-veiled, setting-meaningful references to James 4:4, Matthew 10:16, Matthew 22:21, 1 John 4:18, Ecclesiastes 1:9, Matthew 23:27, 1 Corinthians 13:13, 2 Corinthians 11:14, and (most hauntingly) Luke 8:30.
  • Author Avatar: According to the author’s main inspiration of the Composite Character Germy, this book should have been entitled, “Patrick Ashe: The Patrick Ashe Story, by Patrick Ashe.”
  • Being Good Sucks: Brandon’s attempts to “do good” with a career in social service is met with resistance, criticism, doubt, and outright contempt over and over and over again.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The prestigious firm Vazio (Portuguese for “empty”) & Leer (German for “empty”)!
  • Bittersweet Ending: After the careening Third Act of getting rejected by his new friend Randall for being too politically left and by his love interest Sarah for being too politically right (among other reasons), culminating with The Reveal and averted suicide attempts by both Brandon and Janelle with The Power of Love, Brandon gets fired from his cushy job for correcting their dishonest data (in a professional way, even taking the blame). He lands a meager one with the kind-hearted Conrad and Vicki, accepting Germy’s advice from the beginning that something like this was the way to do good, albeit without a family of his own. Janelle starts a wounded vet nonprofit and meets a future mate, Germy quits his office job but finds one he enjoys in construction and also finds more permanent love, and Marianne struggles but raises two successful kids. Ends on Heartwarming Moment on connectedness of all people of goodwill.
  • Blatant Lies: Sarah preaches “compassion, understanding, and forgiveness” an awful lot for someone who roughly never practices these things. Apparently she doesn't hear herself being dismissive of people with disabilities and mental health issues, especially depression. She fools the ever-eager Brandon (while treating him with suspicion for his "grumpy" side and being contemptuous when she gets him to admit his crush) while his friends are skeptical.
  • Book-Ends: A few.
    • The book starts with the number two and ends with the number one.
    • The first thing Brandon does is send a text message (a commonly one-way interaction for him), and the last is receiving one from Janelle.
    • The first chapter ends and the last chapter begins with Brandon playing his old acoustic guitar alone.
  • Brand X: Gold Pavilion (a telling Yukio Mishima reference) is the go-to social media website. Also the Alter Progress forum, an obvious play on Alter Net (a progressive website). The nonprofit ranking Charity Star website is a portmanteau of real-life Charity Navigator and Guide Star. Ethoz Art Journal references one of Ashe's obscure short stories about Ethoz Art Gallery. Other real-world brands of guitars, cars, and cigarettes are mentioned by name.
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Much of the dynamic between Brandon and Janelle comes down to this.
  • Byronic Hero: Brandon, albeit a dorky variant. His idealism is a front for inner turmoil and the usual markers.
  • Celibate Hero: Brandon, holding off for “The One” (who never comes; only false alarms). It’s mentioned that he Marianne had sex in years prior. They almost do again when they visit.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: A common occurrence for smokers Brandon, Germy, and Marianne.
  • Color Motif: Orange, like that of a pill bottle, is often used to suggest the theme of sickness.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: Choosing a career amid internal and external angst is the main plot.
  • The Conscience: Aisling is this (and thought of as more, perhaps a Divine Date) for Brandon.
  • The Cutie: Essentially Janelle, albeit reluctantly. She's used to being Just Friends and hopes her kinship with Brandon will break this cycle. Mostly no, but their meeting does help lead her to greener pastures.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: A theme, especially around Germy, who is an irreligious, philandering, drinking, Deadpan Snarker goth who cares about others (albeit in a stingy, stoic way) and has the very answer Brandon evades. Given his hateful family, it’s a miracle he’s this good.
  • Darkest Hour: The second December (seasonally apropos) for Brandon. Everything goes wrong.
  • Daylight Horror: The memory of The Reveal, the worst event of Brandon’s life, took place during daytime. Unaware classmates played at recess. And the Sadist Teacher will hear none of it.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Brandon after everything goes wrong leading to The Reveal. Also Janelle after thinking she had met a good guy who really liked her only for him to use and dump her.
  • Ethical Slut: Germy. He cares for his many consensual partners and his best friend, but sex is apparently one of his ways of coping with the Abusive Parents mentioned above.
  • Everybody Smokes: The protagonist and two of the main characters (i.e. Germy and Marianne) do. This shows their self-destructive natures, as 2011 was shortly before American smoking rates bottomed-out, so they’re true addicts. This also fits North Carolina’s tobacco history.
  • Face Your Fears: It's well-established that Brandon avoids driving due to anxiety associated with it, so guess what he needs to do for the Redemption Quest? (Hundreds of miles, no less.)
  • Fictional Political Party: The Campus Progressives and Young Capitalists. Each are stand-ins for liberal and libertarian ideologies, respectively. Each initially appeal to the protagonist’s idealism and have kindly members, but leave him disappointed when his closer friends within them show character flaws related to the ideologies. Also Strawman Political for Author Tract.
  • Foreshadowing: Any interaction with the Morning Star. Also Sarah telling Brandon “you’ve never had a bad thing happen to you, and if you did, it would be your fault” shortly before The Reveal.
  • Freak Out: Brandon has a mild one after his mother disapproves of his attempts to get a job, and a more severe one after The Reveal. Cue screaming and breaking things.
  • From Bad to Worse: Basically the Third Act. After unexpectedly scoring a well-paying job and a sweet visit with Marianne, Brandon either loses touch or has a falling out with each of his friends, gets chewed out by his love interest and authority figures (who he’s always had problems with, given...), has a Go Mad from the Revelation related to childhood trauma compounded by the Sadist Teacher response, culminating in a suicide attempt.
  • Gay Conservative: The kind stranger by the very username Batshitreichwing (apparently inspired by what the progressive forum bullies call their ideological foes) sees Brandon being picked on in and both consoles him and cites their own homosexuality to make a point on libertarian individualism.
  • Good Samaritan: This is what Brandon says his career goals are, but this is deconstructed.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Despite a World of Jackasses, the true Big Bad is the Morning Star, who permeates all.
  • Guardian Angel: Aisling, although Brandon seems to see her face and think of her as an idealized love interest, even fooling himself to think Sarah looks like her and Janelle doesn’t.
  • Heal the Cutie: Basically Janelle's fate. After being at arms' length distance for family and friends throughout her life and then having to care for her wounded brother, Brandon rebuffs her interest and shies away, leaving her with Caleb, whose cheating, gossip, and cruelty results in Break the Cutie. But after reconciling with Brandon and picking herself back up, she starts a nonprofit for wounded vets and finally meets someone who requites her romantic self.
  • Heel Realization: When Brandon realizes he has abandoned Janelle and treated her just as unimportantly as others have treated him. And that she’s likely feeling as suicidal as he is.
  • Hope Is Scary: A theme, even in the Arc Words about hope being a four-letter word. Ultimately, it isn’t hope that gets Brandon and Janelle through the Darkest Hour, but rather love.
  • Hope Spot: Brandon’s Thanksgiving visit with Marianne. They think they’re having a nostalgia-fueled fling when they really just needed good company before the dark path ahead.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Chapters are named for months, establishing backgrounds and emphasizing cycles in modern life.
  • Inspiration Nod: The cover featuring a lone figure in the snow surrounded by darkness is similar to the poster shot of the Kurosawa film Ikiru, which is both mentioned in-passing and shares obvious themes.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Brandon by cutting and Janelle by pills after their concurrent Despair Event Horizons. Just then, Aisling shows Brandon he is not alone, who in-turn shows this for Janelle.
  • Introverted Cat Person: Brandon’s “hard time making friends” personality, even in childhood.
  • Incompetence, Inc.: Community Training Corps, run by shrewd ex-corporate managers, is an influential nonprofit that seems to exist only to continue its existence. Brandon’s attempt to do his job by evaluating their data is scorned in favor of paper-pushing fluff and flashy BS reports.
  • In the End, You Are on Your Own: Zig-Zagged. In the Third Act, Brandon loses contact with his friends (atop rejection from others) one-by-one until he faces a moral dilemma and the Morning Star by himself. Germy even seems to have some kind of prescience that this will happen in their last conversation. But Brandon, aided by the mysterious Aisling, realizes he isn’t truly alone, in the deepest sense, as he previously felt because of what happened in The Reveal. He defeats the Morning Star through his Redemption Quest so that neither he nor Janelle are alone, physically and otherwise.
  • It May Help You on Your Quest: The early-mentioned Mapp App is crucial for the ending Redemption Quest.
  • It Was with You All Along: Brandon’s journey ends with accepting that Germy’s recommendation from the beginning (i.e. small charity) was the solution to being unsure of what to do with his life.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The World of Jackasses usually have points.
    • True to the genre, everyone's parents come across as condescending and sometimes clueless (and cruel, in Germy’s case), although they’re right that the 20’s are about the time their kids’ lives that they have to figure out what they’re doing, as no viable (even Bohemian) alternatives are seen.
    • The internet trolls and Sarah are correct that Brandon’s background is mostly sheltered and privileged. Mostly. (See The Reveal.) Sarah’s is still hypocritical.
    • Anyone who criticizes Brandon’s nervous demeanor and self-destructive habits.
    • Brandon’s parents and friends might sound like jerkasses when they question his motives, but given the inner fight with the Morning Star, they’re onto something.
  • Jewish Mother: Of Jewish Smartass Marianne, mentioned when the former nags the wisecracking latter.
  • The Kindness of Strangers: Batshitreichwing is a random person on the internet (perhaps a harbinger for meeting Janelle, and obviously his later foray into right-wing thought) that gives Brandon a much-needed pep talk.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Germy’s fate, which apparently goes well for him.
  • Little "No": Germy’s response when his parents badger him about not being successful like his twin brother and ask him if he even wants success (in a traditional material sense).
  • Louis Cypher: The Morning Star, of course.
  • Madness Mantra: Of the insults Brandon receives, "Awkward" is the one that really gets to him, as his inner dialogue repeats it the most while thinking about Self-Harm, being egged on by the Morning Star.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: The Morning Star, especially in the restaurant meeting.
  • Meaningful Name: Brandon means “hill” in Old English. Germy is obviously indicative of his “dirty” nature (while Jeremy would be an ironic Biblical name, as Germy isn’t religious). Both Marcel and Kuhn surnames refer to thinkers with similar philosophies as the characters. Indeed, Brandon's "Manna Gainst" username refers to Gabriel Marcel's Man Against Mass Society.
    • Thus, the title could refer to Brandon, but other symbolism suggests his town, country, or the western world in general.
    • Aisling means a dream or a vision. Narration confirms her existence, but this is all she is in Brandon’s mind (presumably to give him a sense of company over lonely years).
    • Marianne’s relationship to Brandon is similar to the object of her namesake song “So Long, Marianne” to its writer Leonard Cohen (who is also one of the many musicians referenced).
    • Sarah Shea-Trivette seems innocuous until you think about her initials (with an odd kinship with Brandon Marcel; public service can be crappy work!).
    • Janelle (merciful) Leora (possessing light).
    • Chris’s big brother status is akin to St. Christopher, known for carrying Christ.
    • Randall Hunt is a fitting name for a card-carrying libertarian.
    • Take one guess what Dick’s personality is like. Or what Rob’s business ethics are like.
    • Miss Helen is the one adult who could have helped Brandon after his trauma and only made it worse. He’s felt like he’s been stuck there ever since.
    • Syandene, Germy’s eventual steady partner, means “arriving on time”.
  • Nice Guy: Despite a World of Jackasses with few friends, people like Conrad, Vicki, Batshitreichwing, Sister Ann, and a few strangers are all presented to be simply nice people.
  • Nun Too Holy / Nuns Are Funny: Inverted with Sister Ann, who is one of the few genuinely nice authority figures and whose pamphlets (which prove to be a critical influence on Brandon) suggest that she advocates against political violence. The book also begins with a quote from Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
  • Only in It for the Money: Randall’s motivation and philosophy. Brandon assumed they shared a deeper goal (alleviating poverty by job opportunities), but it’s yet another disappointing would-be connection. This could also be argued with Dick, Rob, and even Sarah, but only Randall shows being both aware and unashamed about it.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Dick. And how. The name-appropriate behavior is readily apparent and the incompetence starts to show when he “calls out” Brandon’s correct math incorrectly, complete with numbers for the reader to check themselves. Rob tells Brandon he knows this is a problem. Even Dick’s physical description is similar to the Dilbert Trope Namer.
  • The Power of Rock: A theme, given the 30 songs mentioned by name (a de facto soundtrack) and many bands, as well. Rock and guitar are shown as ways to get through daily life and process emotions from it.
  • Rape as Backstory: The Reveal of Brandon’s turmoil, acerbated by how the Sadist Teacher treated it.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: And how. Toward the end, our sensitive protagonist gets one from friend Randall, boss Dick, love interest Sarah (for pages), his mother, and in a childhood flashback from his Sadist Teacher.
  • Redemption Quest: How driving-adverse Brandon responds to The Reveal / Heel Realization.
  • Reference Overdosed: 30 songs, as many standalone bands, Bible verses, random culture, etc. These are usually relevant to the events of the story.
  • The Reveal: After reluctantly correcting his boss’s data, thus doing the right thing when he had everything to lose (and did), the Morning Star reveals to Brandon that he was raped as a child (during a math test, fittingly) and the one adult he tried to tell made the PTSD worse by accusing him of wrongdoing and threatening to expel the model student. Also Caleb’s cheating on Janelle, who had placed all her hopes in him after Brandon turned away from her.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Played with between Brandon and Germy. Germy’s dark epicurean surface masks stoic acceptance of his abuse while Brandon’s uptight ideals obscure his chaotic emotions around The Reveal.
  • Sadist Teacher: Miss Helen. The fit, young, and married-wealthy teacher not only doesn’t believe Brandon when he tries to speak about The Reveal, she threatens him, deepening the damage.
  • Safety in Indifference: Brandon knows that just letting his bosses and Sarah to BS with impunity will bring him closer to his personal goals, but Aisling keeps reminding him that this is not okay.
  • Shout-Out: Per the Reference Overdose. The 30 songs (and their bands) are notable as they usually are relevant to the events or atmosphere; the first mentioned is Rush's Subdivisions, fitting the suburban story's genre with lines like "Nowhere is the dreamer (Brandon) or the misfit (Germy) so alone."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: All over in terms of both characters and messages.
  • Stepford Smiler: Sarah, full stop. Her talk of compassion? See Blatant Lies. She regularly expresses disdain for people with "grumpy" depression issues. While stylishly-dressed and perky, she talks a big game about working in social services (adding to Brandon's idealizing of her), but her volunteer work is superficial and she ends up in an unrelated for-profit job, thinking nothing of the disconnect between her words and actions.
  • Stepford Suburbia: How the background of the characters is described, written as a critique.
  • Straw Hypocrite: Sarah exudes this for her progressive feminism and smug “compassion” while materialistic Randall is too much of a believer in “prosperity” ideals.
  • Take That! / Take That Me: It’s a work of fiction, but given the Author Avatar and above, let’s just say there’s some meta-critiques happening that aren’t just about society at large. Usually in Reason You Suck Speeches, and not just the one receiving them; the more villainous ones from Randall, Dick, Sarah, and Helen suggest why they suck (and in-turn, whoever inspired them) to the reader who sees the greater context.
  • The Unfavorite: The dark and meek Germy to his athletic and achieving twin brother Grayson, whom their parents praise and has seemingly been favored their whole lives.
  • Up to Eleven: This may be a World of Jackasses, but Germy’s parents (his father in particular) make it clear that they have zero interest in downplaying favorites or giving Germy anything other than abusive grief for whatever demons they have. In a roundabout way, this establishes that carefree, fun-loving Germy does have some sense of duty (however misguided in this case), as nothing else could explain why he even stays in contact with them.
  • Walking the Earth: Essentially Brandon’s fate. When tested at the Climax, he realizes he craves romance and stability (“home”) so much that they corrupt his highest goal, to simply contribute to others in whatever small ways he can. Thus, he resigns both love and career to the winds.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Played with. Brandon generally seeks approval, including by his parents, but for the first two acts, they seem overly demanding. But in the third act, a flashback reveals that he was a high-achieving kid that they already proud of, but the impact of The Reveal somehow ruined their relationship. The ending, with him accepting moving back home, implies this has been repaired.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Along with Woobie, how Brandon presents to most people, even himself. But like Good Samaritan above, there’s more going on beneath the surface.
  • What You Are in the Dark: A key theme, given who the Big Bad is. The final showdown with the elusive Morning Star happens when Brandon must decide, alone in his hotel room, whether to sacrifice his well-paying job (built on reporting falsified data as Rob tempts him with ever-greater success and approval) by speaking up with honesty. In a smaller way, being intellectually honest with Sarah (saying what he really thinks instead of just agreeing with her) costs him a real chance with her.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: What Brandon is close to becoming after two acts of being pitiful, but is then offered success, respect, and admiration in exchange for dishonesty (which his detractors have falsely accused him of repeatedly at this point) in a powerful nonprofit.
  • World of Jerkass: Invoked. While there are exceptions like Brandon’s friends and contacts like Conrad, Vicki, Sister Ann, and Batshitreichwing, jerkass seems to be a default for most of this world. It’s an obvious critique of contemporary western life.
  • You Are Not Alone: A central message. Named by his Kenyan classmate. Despite ongoing loneliness for Brandon and others, he finally overcomes the Morning Star and his greatest inner turmoil when he realizes on a deeper, meaningful level that he is not alone. The irony is that this happens while he is physically alone (which he fixes with the impromptu Redemption Quest).
  • You Are What You Hate: Brandon spends the first two acts trying to dig beneath superficiality and have meaningful connections and career only to find himself acting as selfish as everyone else once he finds a girl who genuinely likes him and a well-paying job (rewarding lies, no less).
  • Your Heart's Desire: Brandon's is I Just Want to Be Normal, although approval from authority is a close second. The Reveal shows both why he feels he is not normal (i.e. a traumatic experience of rape mere months after a traumatic medical experience of meningitis when he was already socially awkward) and desires approval from authority (i.e. the Sadist Teacher's response to said traumas). As his mission to "do good" progresses, the Morning Star manipulates this path with a rare (and corrupt) well-paying nonprofit job.


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