Blurbs, so the conventional wisdom goes, are meaningless, yet when they come from the reclusive Thomas Pynchon, they still generate a buzz. And even though the good-enough-for-Pynchon-good-enough-for-me logic doesn’t always hold (anyone read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues lately?), his stamp of approval for 30-year-old Emily Barton is still noteworthy. Barton’s first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, is set in the village of Mandragora, just off the coast of Scotland. The island community is antiquated by about 1000 years, and the title character decides it’s better off that way, even though he’s an inventor. It makes sense that Yves’s distrust of technology would appeal to Pynchon, the most prophetic bard of technological dystopia, who not only anticipated (with acute paranoia) a proto-Internet communication system known as the Tristero in his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49, but even wrote a 1984 Times Book Review essay called “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?”
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 knowledge—and their fears of losing their souls in the process—will 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.