Desire Makes Storytellers of Us All: Anthropica by David Hollander

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I’ve only encountered a handful of long postmodern novels that I’ve found coherent and genuinely fun to read. Usually it’s one or the other—the book pursues the execution of a concept with dogged joylessness, or else it gets happily lost in its author’s profusion of inspiration and thought. Over the years, I’ve found myself agreeing more and more with Martin Amis’s verdict on the super-novel in The Information: “Joyce was the best yet at genius novels, and even he was a drag about half the time.” (Though I’d make exceptions for books by William Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño, and a few others.) As exhilarating as the long postmodern novel can be, the experience is decidedly not for everyone, and it seems that such books fall further out of fashion as the years pass, information culture grows more bewilderingly complex, and the profit motives of trade publishers become increasingly focused. Imagine my pleasure and surprise, then, when I found that David Hollander has written a great big postmodern novel that supplies no shortage of intellectual challenge, delivers page after page of consistently ecstatic prose, and culminates in a dizzying display of conceptual acrobatics.

It’s not easy to describe a novel like Anthropica. Spread across a prologue and seventy-three chapters, this remarkably energetic work connects more than twenty-one perspectives, a number of them first-person narrators, and multiple plotlines to tell an apocalypse story unlike any you’ve read (a comic one, for starters—what a relief). Formally, the novel is fractal: plotlines appear distinct at first, only to become increasingly integrated and nested as the book progresses, such that it become impossible to say which plot or story encompasses the others. The overall effect is a unity that is complete, impressively coherent, and infinitely circular. As if that weren’t enough, the novel’s organizational scheme begins to come into view at the same time a kind of fascinating vocal breakdown creeps in, making some narrators echo others, and in the end the most life-affirming and misanthropic voices take on similarities that will leave the reader compellingly unsettled.

Anthropica begins with the aforementioned prologue, attributed to a writer named Joyful Noise, who claims to be the novel’s author. Subsequent chapters introduce a professor of creative writing vying with Joyful Noise for tenure, an Ultimate Frisbee prodigy who has fallen in love with a teammate’s mother, a group of giant robots playing a game similar to chess, and a scientist who has discovered the bizarre secret of what keeps the universe ticking. The characters in these chapters are all the heroes of their own stories—and there are more stories and protagonists to emerge—but Hollander skillfully weaves them together to construct an epic novel about a plot to exterminate the human race. This epic is metafictional, playing with fictional authors and perspectives in a way that recalls both Vladimir Nabokov’s understanding of literature as art and Roland Barthes’s foundational essay on interpretation, “The Death of the Author.”

As I’ve said above, this novel is surprisingly reader-friendly. Hollander accomplishes this in part by orienting the many narrative arcs around the clearly articulated idea at the heart of his work, the concept of Anthropica, which the character Joyful Noise explains this way: “[T]he entire universe is merely the product of human desire and that everything—including all the vast temporal acreage of so-called pre-human history—is only here because we want it to be.” This idea supplies both pivotal plot material and defines the novel’s fascination with the world-generating power of human desire and language. We humans are, as Deleuze and Guattari had it, desiring machines that produce all manner of desires that are only intelligible to us through the machinations of language. That is, desire makes storytellers of us all, and the story of the world is necessarily a story of stories that are deeply and dynamically interrelated—a truth Hollander plays with by allowing different characters to claim authorship of this book.

There are a number of approaches one might take to making sense of this literary artwork. It’s tempting to treat the text as a series of Wittgensteinian language games, as an exploration of the ways in which discursive systems construct little worlds—think of how a game of chess, with its rules and terms and pieces and board, creates its own linguistic universe distinct from the narrative of the hunger distracting the player concentrating on his next move—and as a heroic attempt to integrate them into a whole. Yet given the present-day publication of this book, which so ably conjures the best postmodern literary spirit of the late 1980s and 90s, I’m more inclined to invoke Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” in which Stevens observes that “[i]t is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era.” Stevens’s essay is concerned foremost with how the language arts are constantly reshaped by what he calls “the pressure of reality,” by which he means the force exerted on an artist by all of the up-to-date stories about what the world is and what is happening in it. It is Stevens’s pressure of reality that makes, for example, stories about Bigfoot the stuff of reactionary nostalgia and kitsch. In the case of Hollander’s novel, I wonder whether the current state of thinking about “reality” in quantum physics makes it impossible to say what the story is—because there are an infinite number of them, swallowed up and swallowing one another, in an ourobotic, fractal whole. What a fitting end to the postmodern literary experiment. Or are we just getting warmed up?

It is appropriate that the novel makes use of different genres and styles. What’s most impressive about the genre mashup is the ease with which Hollander shifts from science fiction to realism to pseudo-journalism to satire and comic storytelling to Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Not only does Hollander find room in his capacious voice for all of these different textures and tones, he does so without compromising their various emotional registers. This is a novel in which the strikingly dissonant passages can coexist without contradicting one another.

Consider, for example, this restaurateur’s account (included in a newspaper article about the latest culinary craze in the restaurants of San Antonio, Texas: vulture) of how she developed her eatery’s new signature dish:

“What we do there,” says Patty, “is we take the meat and we mix with some top quality ground beef and seasonings and then we bake the whole mixture inside of these plastic clamshells that I found online.”

Thanks to Hollander’s mastery of narratorial styles, the satirical effect above is preserved despite his use of the high-caliber pathos employed in the following passage, in which an Alaskan firefighter surrenders himself to a conflagration he knows he cannot outrun:

…he did not flee but only dropped his shovel in the dirt and kneeled in the loam and began praying for his little girl Wendy, now five years old, praying for her to live a good and happy life, he closed his eyes and felt the hair on his forearms singe and he did not know it but he was repeating the words, Jesus Christ have mercy on her soul, he thought of the little girl’s smile and the way she sort of glowed with white light, emanating her own private energy signature, he prayed that she would be spared pain and that wherever he was now going the energy signature would be there, too, he wanted the part of himself that was her to go on forever, he wanted it with an intensity that could drive turbines…

Reading Anthropica, I found myself thinking a lot about style and voice, the ways in which the latter inhabits the former, and how freely and blissfully Hollander’s own energy signature or intelligence moves from style to style and mode to mode. The influence of late twentieth-century postmodernism is heavy here—I detect touches of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, George Saunders, and Donald Antrim—but there is a drive to connect with the reader with unquestionable clarity that demonstrates beyond a doubt that Hollander has tamed these rhetorics in his drive to make a gesture toward why we tell stories, what meaning itself is, and the mixture of futility, stubbornness, beauty, and love it takes to make a dream—especially a potentially insane dream, like the one of becoming an author in the twenty-first century United States—come true. In the grip of such a mastery of narratorial language and technique, it is easy to let go and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride it is, ranging widely in time and space, from a farm in mid-twentieth century Poland to the caverns under an apocalyptic Manhattan to a post-Earthly future in which a machine known as Your Eminence interrogates the preserved heads of not-exactly-dead humans. Maybe the Savior the world has awaited is a randy young Ultimate Frisbee virtuoso; maybe he is the one who will help bring all this human madness to a merciful end. Then again, maybe not. There were times, reading this book, that I stopped to ask myself, Who’s really telling this story? Each time, I found the same reassuring answer: it’s still the author, both dead and alive after all these years, telling the story that burns in its beating, battered, hankering heart.

Hugh Sheehy is the author of the short story collection The Invisibles (University of Georgia Press). His short stories, reviews, and other critical ephemera have appeared in a number of places, most recently West Branch, Story, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Rain Taxi. He teaches Creative Writing at Ramapo College and is a Mentor in Miami University's Low Residency MFA Program. More from this author →