This is not the type of novel I am meant to enjoy. Even meant as satire, War of the Encyclopaedists just screams “I am the product of an MFA writer.” It flounders in its pretentiousness, then washes up on the rocky shores of “but … but … plot?” before an errant wave knocks it loose and the undertow drags it out to the sea of irrelevance.
Hey, I can write metaphors too. Graduate degree, please!
In all seriousness—
—actually, no, I can’t lie to you, Reader. I started this review tongue-in-cheek and will likely remain that way. So, in very little seriousness…
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite are two young men, one a graduate of a Bostonian MFA program, the other a platoon leader who served in Baghdad. They teamed up and produced a book about Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk, who are two young men, one who studies in a Bostonian literature program and the other a platoon leader who serves in Baghdad….
Oh. I see what you did there.
The “write what you know” advice is sound in most cases, and I won’t knock Robinson and Kovite for taking that route. It’s obvious that Corderoy and Montauk are not them—names like that should clue you into the fact the book is satirical, even if every other clue flies over your head. And I’ll grant them this: the juxtaposition of Corderoy’s semi-privileged but dull and pointless grad school experience with Montauk’s semi-privileged but dangerous and pointless deployment experience is interesting.
Or, at least, it should be. The Montauk parts in Iraq kept me riveted. I don’t subscribe to the idea that war is glorious, and generally I don’t read books about war. But I genuinely enjoyed all the details that Robinson and Kovite include about the training Montauk undergoes leading up to his deployment and his actual tour in Iraq. In particular, they focus a lot on his relationship with the men under his command and his lack of confidence as a leader.
Corderoy’s sections, on the other hand, were uphill filler between Montauk’s, at least for me. I cannot bring myself to care about the fact that this whiny brat is bored by school and just wants to slack off. Excuse me while I play my extremely tiny violin, Mr. Corderoy—what, you borrowed it to do lines of coke off it and then sold it for whiskey? That’s fine, son. Go have unprotected sex with your girlfriend. Because you’re wild and carefree and don’t have any connection or sense of responsibility as a twenty-something in the 2000s. I get it!
The forced pretentiousness of both the novel’s content and style is a response to “Great American novels” about men and youthfulness that have seeped into our collective consciousness. Corderoy and Montauk are spoofs and riffs off Holden Caulfield, Gatsby, Stephen Daedalus, and half a dozen other characters I don’t know about because I tend to avoid such novels. That this could work at all is only because of the very postmodernist/deconstructionist schools that Robinson and Kovite satirize in this story. So … yeah. Paradoxical postmodernist self-criticism.
Unfortunately, that’s why despite enjoying the story on the surface, I can’t say I enjoyed War of the Encyclopaedists. It smugly wears its pretentiousness like a badge of literary achievement, and that rubs me the wrong way. It’s like the comic friend you have who keeps going, “Eh? Eh? See what I did there?” after delivering her latest zinger. I totally saw what you did there, but thanks for pointing it out and ruining the joke.
Of course, the other danger with a satire is that, in attempting to emulate the form or content you’re satirizing, you become that thing. War of the Encyclopaedists has an omniscient narrator—the most pretentious and literary of narrators; to compound this effect, Robinson and Kovite deploy the narrator in the least efficient, most annoying way. Omniscient narrators are like the nuclear weapons of narration: extremely powerful, very easy to mishandle, and prone to being messier and not worth your time. Writers who know what they are doing can use them tactically to good effect. In the hands of some writers, though, omniscient narrators become mushroom clouds of exposition. I don’t, actually, need to know every interior and ancillary thought and feeling that all these characters have. Why not show instead of tell?
If high-concept literary takes on literary-ness from MFA grads are your thing, then you’ll probably like War of the Encyclopaedists. It is competently constructed in that most technical of senses—so technically that anything resembling a soul or spirit has fled. I damn it with faint praise not so much because it isn’t clever but because it just isn’t as clever as it wants to be (or as it thinks it deserves to be)—and that is a sin I don’t quickly forgive in my books.