Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2010), and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, forthcoming 2010). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Central to this set of linked stories is a device—a giant helmet, actually—that offers the wearer an experience of radical empathy, the knowledge of another person’s thoughts and feelings. Designed in the slightly loopy hope of ending the Second World War, this helmet gets inherited by an alcoholic from Chicago whose life, at the time of the inheritance, has deteriorated to lots of lonely drinking punctuated by occasional musings on the ennui induced by those pieces of junk mail that are seemingly hand-written—commercial garbage disguised as intimate missives—and the slow realization that the emotion oppressing him, constantly, now, was “the sort of thing he’d read about in college English classes, the most boring ones with the most asinine and pompous rich students on campus...a special kind of contemporary numbness of the spirit, they always said, ennui, Zooey Glassinitis, angst, dread, nothing, a dearth of Existenz, and back then he didn’t think much of it, as it was so utterly unrelatable, such a privileged condition, like someone had just made it up because there weren’t any interesting wars to write about at the time.”
Enter the helmet—the Machine of Understanding Other People—and the various other denizens of these pages, ranging from a murdered kid and his mother to assorted students at the underground School of Surreal Thought and Design. There’s the girl riding out her parents’ separations and the mercenary attending anger management with a nine-inch knife in a calf sheath, the people playing movie star name association games in the wake of apocalypse, the veteran who starts a bee farm in the hope of making up for a civilian he killed in the war. The notions here, the motivating ideas, are often at once senseless and so urgently felt that they necessarily inspire solidarity, whether in the case of the bee farm or the quixotic quest to shut down a private hunting ranch, the dumping of a fortune into the sea, or the project pursued by the students throughout this book, students at various fantastical universities, including, in the first and strongest story, the School of Surreal Thought and Design, the underground facilities of which resemble Willy Wonka’s factory. Here work toward graduation involves the study of carbonated beverages or the high-tech voyeuristic monitoring of others or the construction of models of the construction of models—of a father and son, for instance, building a miniature solar system to some warped version of scale. Another university, later on, boasts a list of units such as the “Department of Meaningless Projects...Cetacean Role-Play; Carbonated Beverage Studies; Bomb-Sniffing for People...Creating Propaganda;...Escaping Propaganda; Ghouls; The History of Dirt; Methane; BP Destroyed a Huge Part of the Gulf and They Will Just Change Their Name....”
As is evident here, just beneath the level of comically self-devouring gimmickry is a righteous rage. The ideals of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature are far from farcical, no matter what far-out character, in what zany circumstances, might be voicing them. Indeed, one of Somerville’s points—along with the fact that all stories are, themselves, machines for understanding other people—is that sometimes the silliest action is also the most human. Breeding bees in no way makes up for having shot a woman dead, but it might also avoid the poisonous quantifying logic of even conceiving of life as capable of “making up for” such a tragedy. The best that can be hoped for is some small sliver of empathy, of true encounter, person to person, and yet—in the face, of, say, that gushing Gulf oil “accident”—this can seem insignificant, an impractical gesture, an absurdity. One character expresses this concern, wondering, about the invention of the helmet, why anyone would
think that this particular invention would be the thing to stop the war. What could you learn about a Nazi that would make the Nazi make more sense? See that he has children, or that he’s felt pain, too? The string of decisions required to find oneself a member of the party? It seems a worthless thing to do, considering the amount of evil involved. Why understand evil? As she works she will sometimes imagine it, though: Dunkirk, but all the young soldiers creeping through that exodus with helmets on their heads, pointing sticks up at the sky as German pilots dropped their bombs.
What makes this image so haunting is that what Somerville has added—the layer of surrealist slapstick, if you will—pales in comparison to the absurdity of the original. This book, cluttered with po-mo academies or sci-fi accoutrements, is ultimately a lens for looking at something far more banal and far more complex. A boy is stabbed, randomly, and dies. The world goes on, spinning around the sun, and nothing is going to bring that dead boy back. Yet fiction, in its own small and sometimes exceedingly quirky way, is not without essential, practical uses. No one at Dunkirk needed a fancy machine offering instant flashes of empathy, but we, in this bloody, oil-stained world, might need precisely the sort of education that helmet could provide. This clever book, passing at first as light entertainment, lays out some heavy issues along the way. You won’t wake up after aching from an empathy hangover—as users of the helmet do—but you will likely find yourself consumed by the voices of the characters and realize anew the need to relate to others in this fleeting, lunatic, terrifying, and precious world.
Official Patrick Somerville Web Site
Official featherproof books Web Site