Skip to main content

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

As pick-me-ups go, I would heartily recommend a Charles Portis novel. After slogging through Sebastian Faulks (see Engleby) I was in a vile humour - as can be attested to by my lovely wife - so I was in the market for something less oppressive and more, well, Kurt Vonnegut-esque. Vonnegut is my regular antidote to being miserable, but I had used up most of my virginal Vonnegut resources in a bleak spell during so-called halcyon university days.


Having bought and read everything I could find which Vonnegut has published (including the delightful Sun Moon Star with Ivan Chermayeff and the script of the NET Playhouse production of Between Time & Timbuktu) except for his latest posthumous collection (which I’m keeping for a far rainier day than this – but more later), I worked through some of my lists of American authors of whom could be said that they were in some way quirkily satirical or blackly comic. Tao Lin (too bizarre for today), Jim Dodge (read ‘em all), John Barth (I just don’t have the energy) tried and failed to interest me, so in the end, I took the vicarious advice of a trusted bookseller friend who knows about these things and picked up Masters of Atlantis from his Cult Fiction shelves.

Being my first Portis, I decided to research him a bit, and rummaged around online to give me some context. I read somewhere, possibly on an unofficial fan / scholars’ website that the quest motif is prevalent in Portis’ novels, and this article went on to prove it not so much at length but in sufficient detail as to render it soporific. Having now read the book, I can say without fear of contradiction that this quest was never going to end well. Lamar Jimmerson’s grudgingly accepted mission, that of preserving and disseminating (albeit without actually giving anything away) the “lost” lore of Atlantis, is destined to fail from the moment Mike from Alexandria (or is that Phletho Pappus from Malta?) “gifts” Lamar – for the tiny sum of $200 – the only copy of the Codex Pappus which contains the ancient mathematical, geometrical and verbosely obfuscatory wisdom of the deluged civilization. From such seeds of deception grow a fairly vivid if slightly meandering comic narrative.
In terms of entertainment, to be washed downstream by the unstoppable flow of Portis’ imagination is an absolute pleasure. The story is relentless if less than aerobic, and characters appear and disappear at whim, often with complicated but enjoyable back stories, but also, as in the case of “Bulldog” White, with no more than a swift introduction before becoming integral to the story. It may seem a little like improvised cookery at times, with characters serving as short-lived literary spice to the overly full pot-au-fer that is this rambling storyline, but it just about holds together. There are several set pieces of genuine laugh-out-loud excellence, none more so than the scene where initiate Austin Popper defends Gnomonism (the name of said Atlantean mysticism) before a Texas panel convened to interrogate rogue cultish elements in the state. And, being Portis, it’s all told with a completely straight face.

[Insert "insert book here" joke here]
It’d be a stretch to match the hyperbole I’ve found on some of the more fervent fan sites about the web, but if you’re looking for a pleasant diversion from the never-ending drudgery of existence then I don’t see why you would reach past a Portis. Unless, of course, you’re Sebastian Faulks, in which case you can grind your face into nearest abrasive surface and then chew your own beard off. Thanks.


Comments

How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca

So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more impor…

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…