By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Pynchon's answer to that question was, in essence, yes, and it is no surprise that Barton's view of our technocracy is similarly dour. But if Barton thinks it's OK to be a Luddite, she never forgets that a world without SUVs is also a world without penicillin. Barton's equivocal view of human progress is as old as Sophocles, who, in the second stasimon of Antigone, wrote that humans are the most deinos of animals, meaning both "awe-inspiring" and "awful." At the beginning of Barton's novel, Yves marvels that before the invention of his two-wheeled cart, Mandragorians "spent so much effort scratching their existence from the soil that they had no time for ideas or contemplation." Yet by the novel's end, he renounces his innovation, proclaiming, "I am done my inventing. I have done too much already, if this be the result."
Whatever the evils of technology, modern medicine probably could have saved three of Yves's siblings, who died from the flu, and his first wife, who died in childbirth. In contrast to the human calamities he recently witnessed, though, Gundron has become gleeful about the bounty wrought by his two-wheeled cart and conjures up the hubris to name the horse that inspired his invention in the first place. "No horse before Hammadi lived long enough to need a name," he writes. "It was enough that God had given us the beasts to serve us; we had never spent enough time with a single one to know its soul."
Even though Hammadi dies soon after, Gundron is correct that he is entering a changing world, and the most dramatic agent of change arrives in the form of Ruth Blum, a modern-day graduate student in anthropology conducting her field work on the archaic, northern European village her mother had told her about. ("I'm here to study you," she explains to a confused Yves.) Once you have the luxury to name a horse, perhaps you can even write music, fall in love, or ponder cultural relativism. And so Ruth, described by Yves as a "spinster native of Cambridge," and towering a foot taller than all the villagers, helps Yves's two-year-old daughter with her original songs ("Roof, Roof,/She tells the troof"), sparks a romance with Mandrik, Yves's lapsed monk brother ("All my misgivings paled in the splendor of his nearness," she swoons), and convinces the entire village to break burial customs and exhume the body of a dead military pilot, whose plane, much to everyone's astonishment, crashes onto Mandragora.
If all this sounds like Ruth Blum is the Mary Poppins of modernity, her presence is fortunately kept in check by the subtlety of her side of the story. Although she is in Yves's narrative, Blum is also the "editor" of Gundron's manuscript, and therefore the surrogate narrator of the novel in the form of erratic footnotes, the longest of which digresses into a shockingly intimate memory of her mother's death. Turn to the front of the book, and you'll find that Barton inscribes it "To my father, and in memory of my mother." Is Barton trying to have it both ways, writing a memoir disguised as a fantasy?
If so, her narrative strategy is ingenious, a parodic twist on the memoir genre that still allows unexpected pathos to sneak through. Barton has managed to write a novel that is simultaneously antiquated and topical, obscure and familiar, a convoluted allegory and a submerged confessional narrative. To be sure, there are the occasional stylistic imperfections and logical glitches endemic to many first novels (the forced airplane-crash subplot, too many anachronistic gags, a somewhat tacked-on conclusion). Yet the characters are genuine, and their quests for knowledgeand their fears of losing their souls in the processwill spur readers onward. Barton is ultimately concerned with holding on to one's inner life in a rapidly changing world. For a novelist casting a skeptical eye toward innovation, nothing could be more blissfully old-fashioned.