“Book Review: Anthropica”
Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
A genre-defying mindbender of a novel with a darkly comic take on the creation and destruction of human life
The scope of the planet can feel overwhelming: mountains, oceans, deserts, jungles, rivers, caverns, continents all stretching over thousands of miles. Add the human race—nearly eight billion of us on a single rock, living and dying, consuming and propagating, exponentially draining the planet of its resources—and the world seems that much more immense. Or that much more impossible. How can such an organism sustain itself?
That question forms the basis for Anthropica, a new novel by David Hollander (or by one of three competing metafictional writers), forthcoming from Animal Riot Press. The book responds to the absurdity of human life with an equally absurd proposition: that the world functions simply because we, as a collective species, want it to. A madcap troupe of characters ranging from university professors to Ultimate Frisbee champions to an ancient race of lobster-clawed, subterranean goons react to the discovery of the Anthropica principle in this compelling, quasi-philosophical dark comedy. Oh, and there are robots.
“Anthropica didn’t mean that the world was broken. It meant that the world could not be changed. It meant that it was only here because we wanted it to be. It meant the worst thing of all: it would go on and on, evolving toward nothing and unbeholden to anything. Christ, talk about depressing.”
At the core are two antiheroes, Grace Kitchen and Finn Daily. Grace is a professor of creative writing who hates her students and somehow thinks she deserves tenure despite her inability to publish. Finn is a doctoral student in mathematics and an Ultimate Frisbee junkie. Working on a theorem as useless as anything in the humanities, Finn stumbles on the secret of the universe, what he terms the God Fractal, a pattern that exists throughout all of the material world. He simply doesn’t know what to do with the revelation—and would rather train for the Ultimate championships anyway, though that becomes more complicated when he is seduced by his teammate’s mother.
And that’s only the first few chapters.
Grace and Finn cross paths thanks to Exit Strategy, a terrorist group bent on destroying all human life. Exit Strategy’s leader sees Finn as a sort of prophet and Grace as the chronicler of their resistance, writing the only book that matters (which may be the same book the reader holds in their hands). Then there are other cast members: Grace’s invalid father, Finn’s girlfriend, an ancient being posing as Grace’s competition for tenure, a sad-sack scientist on to the mystery of Anthropica, and heads in glass jars. Not to mention the robots. And innumerable vultures.
“In the same sense that all humans are candidates for sexual encounters with celebrities and supermodels, Grace was a candidate for tenure at the New School for Global Visions in Manhattan, where she taught fiction writing to writers who sought to teach fiction writing to writers, the absurdity of this infinite regress not lost on Grace Kitchen, who was painfully aware that—Animal Riot Press not withstanding—the market for actual writing (and actual reading) had already faded into the cultural microwave radiation background.”
All of this is delightfully high-concept and, trust me, makes as much sense as it can. It is nearly impossible to summarize the novel in a handful of paragraphs, let alone a single impression or effect. A number of readings are possible, but at some point, the reader must simply suspend a healthy amount of disbelief, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
As dark as the novel is, it never quite gives in to the melancholy that its ironic and absurd elements could suggest. Anthropica can be cynical, particularly when satirizing identity politics, but moments of humanity shine through the nihilism and sarcasm: a naïve college student becomes suddenly sympathetic, a crudely-described outsider acts as a transcendent source of unity, a moment of personal triumph turns into a scornful rebuke. One of Hollander’s gifts is his ability to reverse course without coming across as inconsistent. He will skew to a new perspective that leaves the reader with a breakthrough of empathy, suggesting that excessive cynicism could itself be the satirical target.
But make no mistake: this is not a touchy-feely novel. The plot unravels in tangents that often switch narrator and format, coming just shy of forming a cohesive, satisfying whole. That, in itself, is satisfying. In a book about (in part) our need for meaning, and the meaninglessness of our need for meaning, a fragmentary structure is appropriate. We can grasp at enlightenment but never achieve it. Yet we’ll want to try again, to read again. And those heights that we feel might just also be our lows; indeed, these characters are at their best and their worst when they are unashamedly or unknowingly self-centered.
“The God Fractal, as an idea, was Finn’s latest and most ambitious effort to deliver meaning to the tumult of unforeseeable consequences we called Life, something he’d been trying to do since he was a boy growing up inside a subdivision’s rectangular cage which, when viewed from the window of a passenger jet or attack helicopter or other airborne apparatus, when seen, that is, in the larger context of its many surrounding subdivisions, linked one to the next by black spokes of asphalt, did indeed resemble nothing so much as a box in a flow chart.”
Part of what makes the novel work is the writer’s voice. Hollander is elevated but not esoteric, dense but not impenetrable. His words and phrasings are so sharp they risk breaking skin. And the guy can write a sentence. Some go on for so long—sometimes a page or more—with so many embedded phrases and clauses you think you’d get lost, but you don’t. Instead, they pick up a rhythm and enthusiasm defying the nihilism of the subject matter. He is, himself, creating a world on the page out of the energy of his own artistic desire.
The universe is us, and we are the universe. Maybe the novel is about perception, the worlds we will into being inside our own brains, metaphoric narratives we create to give us the illusion of purpose. Or maybe it’s an extended analogy of the writer as creator of universes, with his characters vying for control of the text.
Or maybe it’s just about Anthropica. You be the judge.
I’ll leave you with one final image: If you chuckle at the thought of a troupe of characters delivering a propagandistic message through interpretive dance while costumed as giant sperm, this is the book for you.
Publisher: Animal Riot Press
Paperback: 502 pages
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