A Review of Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists (by Bethany)

cover image of war of the encyclopaedists

I know – a novel written by a duo doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? That’s what I thought at first too, although I also remembered that I have enjoyed the work of co-authors before: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s The Rule of Four and Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society come to mind immediately, and over the years I’m sure I’ve read others. In the case of this novel, each co-author corresponds with one of the primary characters. The plot of this novel revolves around the friendship of its two protagonists, Halifax Corderoy and Mickey Montauk, and it seems as if the real-life friendship of its two authors was the impetus for the novel. This is just one of many ways that this novel plays around with metafiction and the shifting lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies.

While their names suggest that they have recently escaped from a Dashiell Hammett novel, in fact Corderoy and Montauk are mid-twentysomethings who met while studying abroad in Rome and cemented their friendship by calling themselves “the Encyclopaedists” and hosting a series of artsy parties. The novel opens just before one of these parties, when Corderoy’s girlfriend Mani is ejected from the apartment where she has been staying with an acquaintance. This scene is fairly comic, as the theme of that night’s party is “Conspiracy Theories,” and Corderoy and Mani are dressed as George W. Bush and “sexy bin Laden.” All is not well between Corderoy and Mani, however. With Mani homeless (again), Corderoy feels pressured to invite her to live with him, but he can’t bring himself to ask her. On the one hand, he lives with his parents. On the other hand, he is going to be leaving Seattle soon to go to graduate school in Boston. More important than either of these considerations, though, is the fact that Corderoy just can’t seem to bring himself to cohabitate with Mani. He’s a bit of a passive guy, as the novel hints in this scene and reveals later. Corderoy makes no move toward finding Mani a new place to live, and when he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning after having fallen asleep at the party, he lets Montauk, who was hosting the party, talk him into just leaving – ditching Mani, who is still sleeping soundly, and walking away. Please note that Montauk doesn’t have to work too hard to talk him into it.

So Corderoy leaves, and Mani wakes up and finds no sign of him. She is upset, of course, and so she grabs her things and runs out into the street, where she is hit by a car. Montauk sleeps through the ensuing ambulance sirens and related commotion, but when he does wake up, he gets in touch with Corderoy and suggests that they both go visit Mani in the hospital. (Montauk is somewhat more responsible than Corderoy, though not much.)

Time to make a long story short: soon after this party, Montauk’s National Guard unit is called up to go to Iraq (the novel is set in 2004, incidentally, with routine references to the Bush-Kerry election and the beginnings of the insurgency in Iraq). Prior to receiving this news, Montauk had been planning to go to Boston along with Corderoy, also to attend graduate school. Corderoy is angry with Montauk for all kinds of reasons: for participating in an unjust war, for leaving him in Boston in search of housing and a roommate, for being in the National Guard in the first place. But life happens, and the friends go their separate ways, but on one of their last nights in Seattle they decide to create a Wikipedia entry for the “Encyclopaedists” – in other words, themselves.

My first thought after reading this scene was that I should text Jill and say OMG WE NEED A WIKIPEDIA ENTRY FOR POSTCARDS FROM PURGATORY. WE NEED ONE RIGHT NOW. I never did so, but I also never stopped thinking about the fact that our blog serves the same sort of function in our lives as the Wikipedia entry does in Montauk’s and Corderoy’s. More on this in a little while.

Corderoy leaves first, and in between his departure and Montauk’s some key events take place. First, Montauk lets Mani move in with him after she is released from the hospital. She is badly injured and can’t walk at first, so Montauk carries her around, waits on her, and develops an affection for her that blends sexual attraction with the way one might feel about a wounded puppy that appeared one day on one’s front porch. He worries about her, knowing that she still isn’t fully capable of self-care and that she still doesn’t have a place to live and is semi-estranged from her parents, who live in the Boston area. A week before he leaves, Montauk suggests that he and Mani get married. That way, he will be entitled to a larger housing allowance from the government, some/most of which she could use to find a new place to live and continue to recover. They are married by a judge shortly before Montauk leaves town. It’s worth mentioning that while Mani and Montauk share some tender moments in bed and on Montauk’s couch, their relationship is not sexual. It’s not always clear what Montauk feels for Mani. He clearly wants to take care of her – and he has known her for some time as his friend’s girlfriend (and seemed not to like her too much in that role, by the way) – but staying away from sexual intimacy isn’t especially hard for him to do. Saying that he feels “like an older brother” to her isn’t right either. The best I can say is that with his life about to change monumentally as he heads to Iraq to command his own platoon, he seems to want some kind of tangible symbol of his newfound responsibility – and Mani is conveniently placed to become that symbol.

As Montauk’s level of responsibility rises, Corderoy’s declines. The Corderoy that we meet in Boston does not seem like the Corderoy we met in Seattle – and at first I thought this was a real flaw in the novel. In Seattle, Montauk and Corderoy seem like intellectual equals, trading one-liners and collaborating as partners in planning and executing the Encyclopaedist parties. It’s true that Corderoy doesn’t come off well in the Mani incident – but he didn’t fall in my estimation until he moved to Boston.

First of all, in his first graduate course in literary theory, he proves himself implausibly naïve. The professor structures his first lecture around the Star Wars trilogy, asking the class to analyze the films from several different perspectives. Now, it’s true that not all undergraduates emerge from college with backgrounds in semiotics, but anyone who graduates with a liberal arts degree in any field (especially in the early ‘00’s, when someone like Corderoy would have grown up not only with the original trilogy but with the newer films out in theatres) can make some basic noises about Joseph Campbell’s mythic archetype as it applies to Luke Skywalker & Co. This topic was part of the 10th grade religion curriculum at my high school, for God’s sake. If it weren’t for Joseph Campbell and Star Wars, what would I have talked about at three in the morning to my crazy hallmate with the overactive thyroid in my freshman dorm? While memory may fail me just a bit, I remember college conversations falling into three general categories: 1) You wouldn’t believe how drunk I was last night, 2) Scooby Doo is secretly about marijuana, and 3) Joseph Campbell and Star Wars.

And yes, I’m definitely making too much out of this Star Wars business. What happens to Corderoy in Boston – aside from embarrassing himself in his first graduate class – is that he becomes depressed. The D word is not used explicitly, but the diagnosis is pretty clear. He feels overwhelmed in his classes. He misses Montauk. He worries about money when his parents tell him that they can’t support him anymore. He’s lonely, never really connecting well with his overachieving, angst-ridden roommate and humiliating himself when the object of what seems to be an online romance turns out to be a con artist. He self-medicates with alcohol and eventually stops going to his classes altogether.

Throughout the rest of the novel, which follows Corderoy in Boston and Montauk in Iraq, giving some air time to Mani and to Corderoy’s roommate Tricia as well, Corderoy and Montauk keep in touch via their Wikipedia page. When one has something he wants to say to the other, he edits the Wikipedia page accordingly, adding more subheadings, external links, and so forth. Being artsy-fartsy hipsters, they don’t just say what they have to say, however. Instead, they are oblique and roundabout, using academic jargon, obscure references, and other forms of “code” to communicate with one another. While Corderoy is in over his head in his literary theory class, the authors who created him have clearly done their homework and have lots to say about art, literature, and truth. Over and over again, this novel gives us human behaviors that mimic what Corderoy and Montauk do on their Wikipedia page – continually returning to their conceptions of themselves and editing away unwanted material. The characters in this novel – major and minor – are relentless liars. Some lies are malevolent, but most are not. Most of the lies in this novel seem to be attempts at self-expression – and also sometimes attempts to cover up other attempts at self-expression or accidental moments of self-disclosure.

Of all the debut works of fiction I’ve read in the last year or so, I’ve read others (Redeployment, We Are Not Ourselves) that hold together better than this one does. This novel’s structural integrity is not great (example: near the end, Corderoy joins a sleep study, and for 20 pages or so the novel feels as if it’s been hijacked by George Saunders). However, none of these other novels affected me on a personal level the way this one did. I was actively engrossed in this novel from start to finish, which is especially notable given that I had a number of pressing distractions in my own life that week. I made a running list of its flaws (any novel this ambitious is bound to have flaws) and I’ve shared a few of them with you here, but there’s no reason to be nitpicky. This novel captures its characters well, and, even more so, it taps into the 2004 zeitgeist at least as well as two of my favorite works of recent fiction: Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk and Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. This novel is worth your time and I recommend it highly.

This entry was posted in Authors, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Review of Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    This book sounds amazing. interestingly, my first thought was not that we need a wikipedia page (though that sounds like a fun idea). It was that we need to write a novel together. Like we have time for that. Perhaps we should start with a wikipedia page.

    • bedstrom says:

      Really? I think that’s great. I’m up for it if you are…

      • badkitty1016 says:

        We don’t have time for that. But say we did. What would we write about? I think talking about what we might write about would be potentially more fun than actually writing it. Also. Did you really like The Rule of Four? I sort of hated it. It might have been the first book I ever read where I could tell it was a first novel. The writing was so… What’s the word? Effortful. Like they were both working really hard. I enjoyed the story, but the writing seemed to get in its own way.

      • bedstrom says:

        I read it a really long time ago and don’t remember anything about it, but I do remember liking it (I think).

        I think if we were to write a novel together, we should start with some aspect of our shared real lives — something from high school or some such, something small — and then imagine it going a different way. I can’t think of anything specific right now, though hypothetical novels are usually my specialty.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        I actually looked the rule of four up in my old book journal last night. I apparently liked it but thought the ending sucked.

      • bedstrom says:

        Have I ever told you my idea for a novel that involves the Bronte sisters and TIME TRAVEL? That one would be fun to write together…

  2. badkitty1016 says:

    And I just bought this book for my kindle.

  3. Maria Caswell says:

    Bronte sisters and time travel. That sounds like a crowd pleaser!!

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