(Posted by Evan)
This book was a little disorienting at first, as I was distracted by all the different media settings when browsing the book. Also, it starts with a family tree diagram and a map before starting a sub-novel called The City-State (CS) which only gets two pages in before it is interrupted by a news clipping (that is very irritatingly chopped in half from top-to-bottom, presenting only the top half, and also the third column cannot be read due to the crease between the pages of the actual book), a news clipping which in retrospect I realized is part of the Henry Bartle correspondence which is sort of a sub-novel of its own (HB). CS contains some cool illustrative interruptions in its own right, and lastly (well not lastly but three is enough for the moment), there are inserts of The Letters of Zadock Thomas (Letters).
The Historian Bartle (Eliza’s father) constructs the history of the Thomas bloodline, in part by Zadock’s letters. I’m no scholar. But I occasionally read history blogs (via realclearhistory mostly) and less often history books (sigh), and it is commonplace that letters of important people will be used as sources to reconstruct accounts of events or at least present their thinking on the important thing they did. No one writes letters anymore.
I’ve written a small number of letters in my life. They were are well received. I fear we may be losing more than we know in getting away from letter writing. I dare say the author agrees with me, if I sense a bit of frustration in the Bartle’s statement’s about Joseph Gray:
(p. 79) “I have cobbled together a brief biography from society publications. Business was his main sphere of influence, and through his ventures are well documented, little can be gleaned from numbers and ledgers. He kept no diary and wrote few letters.”
The dystopian future is very 1984 with overarching government control of everything, with a particular interest in controlling all information. The phonotubes and watchtower essentially act like telescreens. A difference is that Big Brother was in the business of distributing propaganda and then editing that propaganda to make history accurately reflect the present (propaganda); the Vault and the phonotubes are presented as factual recording and documentation of everything. I suppose we are pretty close to the latter - in the present and in reality - with our data collectors that we willing pay for and pump data into. Though I think it would be naïve to say that there isn’t some kind of falsification going on. I again turn to Bartle:
(p. 34) “I thought there were principles. Rules to govern which facts should endure and which should dissolve into dust. But now I see my criteria were arbitrary. I chose objects or moments, and they became real. I draw worlds from crumbling stacks of paper, and they are given meaning by my careful attention. The designs of the Historian become history’s lessons.”
There are some paragraphs of noticeably poetic prose that stand out to me. When I read them, I wonder if these few sentences were the beginning of the book. A moment of inspiration or two jotted down on paper, and the whole motivation for a book springing out of a desire to create a space where those words belong. Here are two examples -
HB (p. 35) “The past is like a tree in the darkest night, filled with black birds barely seen. Truths that flutter, escaping the edges of peripheral vision. First, they are birds lost against a dark sky, then they are simply leaves, blown about by an animating wind. The longer I looked, the more difficult it was to see.”
Letters (p. 53) “We are born and live the full thread the fates have trimmed for us and then we are gone, absorbed into the great darkened sky of the past and forgotten completely. Some men have legacies. Stars that remain bright. But how to become such a man?... I would be content to be even a small star in the vast and churning night, an asterisk in the history of man.
About the Author: The one in the back of the book is more fun. This is from zachdodson.com
Lots of pictures of all the cool stuff he does with the books there, including the one I inserted above.
Zach Dodson is a designer particularly interested in visual narrative. He has designed books for many independent presses, most notably featherproof books, which he founded in Chicago in 2005. Contact him about freelance book design projects by putting “@gmail.com” after his name.
Actual maps of Texas in 1843 according to DuckDuckGo.
A little bit more below the fold, but **SPOILER ALERT** if you haven't made it a little past p. 81.
Wow! Total mindf*** in HB’s third correspondence (and I think a few layers of brewing future mindf***s). If The City-State is a futuristic novel written by Elswysth’s mother Evelyn Andersen, then is the reality of the novel contained within Bartle’s historical records? Is the green tabbed part of the book just a fictional novel written in the 1843 part of the book?
And then The Sisters Gray, yet another sub-novel, emerges, and despite being called a work of fiction seems to describe the same world and events as HB and Letters do. I suspect there will be some time-travelling going on.