Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jamestown and the Author's Recommendations

Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown is one of the funniest, most imaginative novels I've read in some time. Summarizing its plot, even if that were possible, wouldn't do it justice. In my former life as an editor (as opposed to my future life as an editor), it was one of the two or three books to come across my desk that I was most disappointed to fall short of acquiring.

It's a book of strange ambitions. As the author himself has said:
I'd say one of the ways I tried to use language to depict the impossible in Jamestown was to represent the past, the present, and the future happening simultaneously. This happens at the level of content--people in a future America living one of America's originary historical events as if it had never happened before--and, I hope, it also happens at the level of style--people talking in English that is Shakespearean one moment, Keatsean the next, Otis Reddingesque the next, or all in the same sentence, or word.
But in addition to having all of that on the page, Jamestown is a deeply pleasurable read. Here's the opening, and I think your reaction to it will almost perfectly predict whether the novel is for you or not:
To whoever is out there, if anyone is out there:

Today has been an awful day in a run of awful days as long as life so far. The thirty of us climbed aboard this bus in haste, fled down the tunnel, and came up on the river’s far bank in time to see the Chrysler Building plunge into the earth. The grieving faces of my colleagues being worse to look at than that crumpling shaft of glass, brick, and steel, I used my knees to plug the sockets of my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and clamped my nose and mouth shut with my thighs. All main entries to my head remained sealed till Delaware, where I looked up in time to see John Martin vault his seatback, steak knife aimed at George Kendall’s throat. Kendall, bread knife aimed at Martin’s throat, said, “How dare you say that!” Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I’ve seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife.
So, you should read Jamestown. But what prompted this post was actually a post Sharpe contributed to Terry Teachout's blog, About Last Night. In it, he recommends five novels with elderly protagonists. The two I hadn't heard of caught my attention -- they sound worth investigating for those drawn to the absurd. Here are Sharpe's descriptions:
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington. This fantastical novel whose author is probably better known as a painter concerns a 90-year-old woman whose family cannot distinguish between her, a rooster, and a cactus. She dies and comes back... as a 90-year-old woman.

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf by Paul Fattaruso. My fellow Soft Skull author's novel is wise and beautifully written and its protagonist, being an unfrozen dinosaur, is way older than any of the others on this list.


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