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?

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the …

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson

Ah, what would be a review penned by yours truly without some sort of grovelling apology at the outset? A better review no doubt, but that aside I can't help but continue the tiresome tradition with an apology. Sorry to my regular robotic readers (hi bots!) but I have been very neglectful of the blog of late, having been tied up with my pursuit of a broader spectrum of dilettantism; I've been taking part in a number of MOOCs offered by various HEIs on the FutureLearn platform. Worth checking out if you ask me.

(Subtle enough plug, you think?)
Anyway, the break afforded by a foray into further education has proved something of a test for Jasper Gibson and his fiction. In truth, it took me a little while to remember what exactly the novel was about, who was in it, and how I felt about the whole thing. Instant alarm bells. Of course, having had a break, I'd had a good crack at filling my head with a whole bunch of other things worth remembering, so maybe it all just got squeeze…

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

*Shame Klaxon*
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often consid…