12/29/09

Matthew Sharpe – History Is A Hilarious Hallucinogenic Jazz-Symphonic Device Of Post-Apocalyptic Karmic Overdose

Matthew Sharpe, Jamestown (Soft Skull, 2003)

«Jamestown is set in a dystopian future when Manhattan and Brooklyn are at war with each other. The Manhattan Corp. sends a group of men in an armored bus down I-95 to Virginia where they hope to find food and oil to replenish their wartime supplies. Arriving in Jamestown, they find strange natives "of a reddish hue" who aren't too friendly. The Manhattanites communications specialist, Johnny Rolfe, is enamored of the sexy and bawdy Pocahontas, while the bus' mechanic, Jack Smith, tries to keep his head about him. Rolfe narrates most of the novel via letters, e-mails, IMs he shares with the Indians' leader's daughter. It's an anachronistic struggle where the 21st century technology could be trumped by a 17th-century civilization. Matthew Sharpe's novel has received mostly positive reviews with the Washington Post saying, "Jamestown is packed with marvelous material, moving and funny and deeply provocative."»

«Few writers since Donald Barthelme have been able to synthesize an absurdist comic vision with true erudition, not even to mention narrating a story which is both hilarious parody and dark, haunting realism. In fact, erudition, one could say, works against comedic ambitions, creating a gravitas which can all to easily undercut other authorial intentions. And if the story-telling is in the hands of a writer willing to forfeit deeper levels of substance for camp and jokes, the work can become tiresome and banal. It is most difficult to apply the lighter touches necessary to political parody these days and even harder to create a narrative that will operate sort of like a hot air balloon and carry its passengers across history, myth and legend, while letting them fly into giggles, as if drifting into fluffy, vaporous clouds. But in Matthew Sharpe’s book, this balance is wonderfully achieved and skillfully at play. “Entertaining” is an under-rated quality in literary fiction, perhaps, and Matthew Sharpe’s new novel Jamestown reminds us how potent it can be.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of two previous novels, The Sleeping Father and Nothing is Terrible, as well as a short-story collection Stories From the Tube. Jamestown draws on the Jamestown legend: how the first American settlers made their first settlement in the New World, driving the Indians off their native grounds. Sharpe has set up his retelling of the Jamestown legend by casting his characters into contemporary voices who alternately parody the standard story of the first Americans and Indians and then weave in their own wild, original adventures and personalities. The novel is written in several different character’s voices, each presented as first-person monologues. It is Sharpe’s impressive skill with language and voice that makes the book so seductive and enchants us. And so, for the purposes of rendering a truly literary appreciation of this author’s gifts, I would like to showcase parts of these inventive, playful monologues, as only describing them wouldn’t suffice or do justice to Sharpe’s formidable talent. The play and echoes of these monologues provide the wind on which his satire flies and they are the reason the work reaches such peaks of hilarity and sting, offering a deftly told political tour-de-force.
The book begins with a monologue from Johnny Rolphe (who will become our romantic interest in the book as he leads his survivors into the swampy South and falls in love with the famous Pocahontas - the daughter of the Indian’s Tribal Chief):
“To whoever is out there,” Johnny Rolphe begins the novel, “if anyone is out there: Today has been an awful day in a run if awful days as long as life so far. The thirty of us climbed aboard this bus in haste, fled down the tunnel, and came up on the river’s far bank in time to see the Chrysler building plunge into the earth...”
Witnessing human chaos as the city pieces fly about, Rolphe’s comic portrayals of the feuds and debauchery inside the fallen New York City fill the beginning pages of the tale. “Some great, quaint pre-annihilation philosopher described the movement of history as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, whereas I’ve seen a lot more thesis, antithesis, steak knife, bread knife” he tells us, then describes how a man holds a breadknife in one hand, a steak knife in the other, vaults from his seat back during the collective journey out of the destroyed city, to slit the throats of not one but two other men, each knife, steak and bread, ready in his hands.
“A few miles out of Delaware a log or rock got lodged in our tank tread,“ Rolphe continues, chronicling the exodus from Manhattan, “I gazed out the dirty bullet-proof window at two plump hares, creatures one sees none of on the island of my birth. ‘Say bullet resistant glass not bulletproof glass because there’s no such thing as bulletproof glass and though this may be a technicality I wouldn’t want to sell this glass to you under false pretenses however slight’ the used bullet proof glass salesman said to me in my role as this trips communication specialist, back at home, three days before the earth swallowed the tower. ‘What will you be using the glass for?’
‘For not dying,’ I said and put my fist in contact with his chin, in modern-day New York. Stepping over his prone form, I put as much glass in my cart as would fit. Don't judge me, if I exist. Show me a man who goes to sleep each night integrity in tact and I will hit him in the chin with my fist and take his glass.”
The eager new settlers, after the arrive in the South’s wilderness are led by a character named John Ratliff. Ribald satire abounds once the books gets rolling. Ratliff’s mother's boyfriend is the CEO of Manhattan Company. The Indians are “redskins” due to their applied use of “sunblock SPF 90”. The story follows the Rolphe’s falling in love for Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, and later in the story, she saves the life of another settler named Jack Smith. Kidnappings, killings, and theft continue to alternate as each first-person account leads us through another verbal thicket of dark comedy and surreal events.
After Johnny Rolphe’s first person account, we meet Pocahontas:
“To the excellent person who is reading this! Hi! My name is Pocahontas,” she writes, “and I’m nineteen, but Pocahontas isn’t my real name. If I say my real name you will die. Anyone who hears my real name will die. Pocahontas is my nickname means “person who cannot be controlled by her father. My dad didn’t make it up, my mom did before she died, and he’s kind of mad because that that’s my name because anyone who says my name name will die., which has been proven, but right now I can’t talk about that because in English, which isn’t my mom tongue, you can talk only about one thing at time, at most” she continues: “Oh, English, how I love to write to you in English, even though its so slow to anything in English because English moves at the speed of talking, whereas my language moves at the speed of thinking. Thinking in English is beautiful sort of in a way it is beautiful to have smoked a big bowl of Busthead.”
Later in the novel Pocahontas delivers a poem for us. She writes:
To the edge of the world I am running
Beyond the land, beyond the sea
I evade my predator with cunning
And so does my virginity
--Pocahontas
As the the novel follows the legendary plot of the Jamestown history. John Ratcliffe, lets the reader know what is happening:
“Dear President Stuart,” begins Ratcliffe’s first person account, “Please allow me to to begin by letting you know how honored I am by the confidence you have expressed by appointing me executive president of the Virginia Branch of the Manhattan Company. I will do my best to execute your intentions to the extent that I understand them. have arrived safely, and have begun scouting the area for a suitable location on which to begin construction of regional headquarters. As surely you must know, our departure took place under less than ideal circumstances due to the unanticipated urban infarction of which you were also no doubt a recipient. (I trust you have found safe ground sir and are prospering!)”
There are also darker places in this book, surprises even as the story becomes more wild, and Sharpe flirts with sounding preposterous. At one point, for example, Pocahontas observes a man with an arrow in his head and speaks of him to her Aunt Charlene:
“That man does not believe he’ll die one day”, she says to Charlene,
“Which one?”
“The one with the arrow in his head.”
“How can you tell?”
“He’s got an arrow in his head and he’s not dead.”
“How could he not believe he’ll die? What a dope.”
“He’s not a dope, he’s smart and strong, in spite of how he looks and acts. And what he says. His unbelief in death protects him. his unbelief in his own death is an attack on death that death is flummoxed by. and by the way, you, too, don’t believe you’ll die.”
“I know I’ll die. I think about it all the time.
“You know and think but don’t believe.”
“And will my unbelief protect me?”
Reading Jamestown I thought of Barthelme’s famous novellas Snow White or The Dead Father. I thought how humor in a skillful writer’s hands can open a door to profundity, to substance, show us places without those depth that are as absurd as they are serious. Absurdity can be enlightening. Jamestown is as much about violence, the exploitation of races, women, corporate avarice as it is a tour-de-force and plain wildly funny. It’s the adroit balance of effects Sharpe strikes makes it exceptional and one not to be missed, I think.
Or as Pocahontas sums it it up, capturing Sharpe’s combustive blend of bawdy parody and sober seriousness:
“What strange fish these are who fear the water that surrounds them. And by fish I mean men, and by men these grim and self-destroying fools among whom I sink down now in illness and despair. But the heck with Shell Knee Craw for uttering the d word, even in her mind, and to no one. She - I - might as well say aloud, seriatum, to her worst enemy - and who dat is she think she know but (ugh!) will not admit - all her killing secret names, show all her secret selves, leave no wall between her outside and her inside, become in other words - nothing.“
There are so many more examples of glistening, inventive, and ingenious writing. John Ratcliffe’s wife writes:
“After we had sex tonight, Jim read aloud a haiku he wrote for me as is his wont, and gave me a copy in his fast and and clear and forceful script:
Manhattan’s dirt in Brooklyn’s eyes
my cock in your ass
Orgasm.”
As the novel stampedes and rollicks towards its climax and inevitable end, Pocahontas takes the narrative reins and provides us with a report of exactly how the famous Indian tribe was dominated and conquered at last by the white settlers.
“Dear fellow grown-up," Pocahontas writes,“First thing I did as a woman was the dishes. Oh no wait, that’s not true. First thing I did was watch two boys flight, and try to break them up and fail. Last night, after I told you about the advent of the menarche, I kind of went into a swoon and passed out in the corn shack awoke at dawn with killer backache. I eased my redass down out the back flap of the shack so as not to be seen by the guys on the bus, in case they were awake, and I tip-toed, real quiet, Indian style, through all the corn stalks all dolled up in dew like girls in rhinestones. Hello, you glorious young woman, they said to me. Corn loves me. Plants in general love. Soil rich in human blood loves me.”
In short, a sparklingly energetic vaudevillian satire becomes a sobering meditation on war, sex, and gender, (or “civilization and its counterparts,” as John Rolphe describes it at the very beginning). Black humor always bubbling, and often raising the boiling point of this narrative stew to reveal the folly and doomed apocalyptic intensity of humankind. This is, indeed, no small literary feat. I think Sharpe is a rare writer, one who freshens the air with new and original work at the same time he re-acquaints us with our past (and too often forgotten) maestros. Donald Barthelme is just one such maestros that this work called to mind, and I do hope readers will enjoy as much as I did the abundance here.» - Leora Skolkin-Smith

«The plain, even soporific titles of Matthew Sharpe’s books belie one of the most energetic and laudably fluid prose styles going. On any given page, Sharpe can swing contagious exuberance (“How unpleasant and interesting it is to be alive!”) and aphoristic head-scratchers, shrewd pop-culture quotation and hairpin dialogue, the brilliant joke and the dumb joke and the dumb joke repeated enough times that it becomes brilliant. His breakthrough novel, The Sleeping Father, engineers a nuclear-family meltdown striking for its luminous sadness, as well as for its buzzing word games. As that hilarious and haunting tale closes, the teen protagonist officially enters adulthood, contemplating with clear eyes “that finite loop of breakdown and consolation known as the future.”
In Jamestown, the future has arrived, and we get that loop writ large: a postapocalyptic Eastern Seaboard teeming with misunderstanding, wobbly truces, Technicolor violence, and moments of grace. But it’s also loopy: In the wake of a massive, undefined “annihilation,” Manhattan and Brooklyn are at war, having recently waged the Battle of Joralemon Street. A Manhattan exploratory party, heading south in search of fuel, encounters a Virginia tribe of ambiguously ethnic Indians (one is named Sit Knee Find Gold—or is it Sidney Feingold?), who use wireless devices and appear to know English. In contrast to the ennobling austerity of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s recent foray into calamity lit, Sharpe amps up the Grand Guignol and the wisecracking, hurling the “linguistic detritus” of the early twenty-first century at us at warp speed. The story is a laudably freaked-out (and occasionally bewildering) cover version of the early-seventeenthcentury founding of Jamestown (England’s first sustainable colony in the New World), rendered as a narrative round-robin à la As I Lay Dying and reset in a rusted-out day after tomorrow that owes something to the variant futures of Philip K. Dick.
In short, you couldn’t ask for a book more different from The Sleeping Father, which underneath all its verbal wizardry and deft absurdity has the heart of a crowd-pleaser. Sharpe isn’t one to rest on his laurels, and some (if not most) admirers of that book will be turned off by the often deliberately cartoonish nature of this latest offering. (In an inspired bit, colonist John Martin gets an arrow permanently lodged in his head but survives to become like his wild and crazy namesake Steve.)
More than in any of his previous fictions, Sharpe delivers breathtaking sentences, and nearly every page has an example or three worthy of our awe. Similes crackle, and even when they don’t, their not-crackling crackles, as in John Rolfe’s description of the now-destroyed Chrysler Building: “Back when it was built you could stand at the top and feel the clear, clean, cold, blue, crazy-ass air hit your skin like— like— like— like— like— air.” Language gets spun into labyrinths, elegant stalemates (“The bus we thought would take us to our new home may turn out to be our new home”) captured between capital and full stop.
Pocahontas, whose doomed love for the Manhattan Company’s Rolfe constitutes the book’s most compelling story line, writes early on: “Oh English! How I love to write to you in English, even though it is so slow to do anything in English, because English moves at the speed of talking, whereas my language moves at the speed of thinking. . . . When I think of the world in English, or look at the world in English, it moves so slow, like English, and that feels good cuz life’s so short!” In English, she notes, “you can talk about only one thing at a time.” Sharpe’s carefully crafted prose has the freeze-frame effect Pocahontas alludes to, while simultaneously packing so many surprising nuances that at times it’s as if he’s communicating in a different, more advanced tongue—one that his heroine would grasp.
The book begins as a perverse epistolary novel, in which Rolfe and Pocahontas send messages into the ether, first electronically and then, it seems, mentally, with no specific recipient in mind. Pocahontas addresses her first missive with the hopeful “To the excellent person I know is reading this”; Rolfe’s greetings range from the dubious (“To the one whose existence I doubt”) to the ornately Stevensian (“To nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”).
Are they simply writing into the void? Any blogger, faced with depressingly low site traffic, has had to ask this question. And those of us living in the midst of the wordwild Web have pondered the impermanence of it all, not to mention the exact date the book will die. Sharpe exhibits the virtuoso’s simultaneous and contradictory infatuation with, distrust of, and fear of language. “Talking is dangerous. Writing more so,” Pocahontas decides. “Best not to.” This is shortly before she publicly blurts out an off-the-cuff prophecy that the strangers from the north will defeat the tribe. “I can’t believe what I just did. I opened my mouth and changed the world.” You can choose silence, if only it were a choice. If you know how to write, you write.
The mutual ignorance that the Manhattanites and Indians harbor for each other’s cultures could correspond with this country’s current stagnant occupation of Iraq, the citizens of which remain opaque to many of us, and vice versa. Pocahontas reveals that what the northerners thought was a welcoming song actually translates to “Fuck You, New York Shits”; in a sly reversal of the notion of the Other, it’s the men from Gotham whose identities merge, their sturdy Anglo names less distinctive than those of their native counterparts. That the book is set in Virginia and New York suggests redstate/ blue-state tensions ratcheted to their absurd zenith. Jamestown both is and isn’t about this. As Rolfe (“GreasyBoy”) puts it in an e-mail to his inamorata (“CornLuvr”): “Art, though sometimes nice, has always been perfectly useless against war.” - Ed Park

«Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown is defiantly not a historical novel; it is a brazen back-to-the-future plunge into the present, mixing period details with anachronistic abandon, and charting the decline of civilization—namely, ours—with an anarchic glee fueled by moral outrage that eventually eases into bemused resignation. Amid the ear-shattering awfulness of so many contemporary American discourses, from the geopolitical to gimmick techno-talk, Sharpe squeezes poetry from gadgetry and jerks. "I'm reclining on my bunk," notes one of a band of colonial brutes, "caressing the small, soft qwerty keys of my wireless device."
The Sleeping Father, Sharpe's sleeper lit hit of 2004, portrays dysfunctional suburban family dynamics through seamless perspective shifts and language often tragicomically ill-suited to communication. In Jamestown, which makes landfall exactly 400 years after the founding of the actual colony (and arguably the swampy start of the U.S.), Sharpe has composed a jazz symphony of a novel out of American voices and violence, exchanging suburbia for the sprawl of history and apocalypse.
The settlers in Sharpe's version of his-story (a narrative very much about the afflictions of males) are a group of men escaping New York City down I-95 in a beat-up bus. Behind them, the Chrysler Building has collapsed, the city's water and food supply are contaminated, and the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan are locked in a fierce war over who knows what, exactly, but resulting in the bleak black comedy of archly mock-historical lines like: "I was surprised to encounter Chris Newport... whose left arm, you may recall, Sir, you severed with your Glock on the last day of the Battle of Joralemon Street."
Johnny Rolfe, one of the book's two principal narrators among many, and the clan's "communications specialist," reports to us, his unseen and possibly nonexistent readers, via the aforementioned portable qwerty device. Life on Rolfe's bus is dominated by violence and dread. "I don't like a bus of guys," he deadpans after yet another bloody altercation among his fellow men. "Is there any bus of guys on which a man can hug and feed another soup without first having sliced his face?" Don DeLillo once suggested that his novels might be grimly unreadable without their flashes of humor. Throughout Sharpe's graphically brutal scenes, the violence is rendered in visual gags reminiscent of hardcore slapstick—a Jackass for the Jacobean set—and framed in ironic lines of whiplash humor. When the first attack by the natives (would-be Indians, it later turns out, reddened by sunscreen abuse) launches, the arrows "sprang into being in other guys' body parts—hands, beards, knees" like Wile E. Coyote getting barbed by the natives.
A few sentences later, our communications man Rolfe reflects: "They did with their bows what I'd been trying to do with my wireless device: send a message, instantly and invisibly, across a vast amount of space." Historians and aficionados of Jamestown lore will recognize Rolfe as the real-life 17th-century tobacco planter who, despite all the Captain John Smith/Pocahontas soap opera mythology promulgated by Disney (the novel calls him 'Jack Smith' and sometimes 'Jack's Myth'), wed the most famous pop-cultural icon of Native America—Pocahontas—variously identified in Sharpe's pages through gleeful, wise-guy deconstructions as 'Poke-a-huntress' and... well, use your imagination. Rolfe may be the novel's designated communications specialist, but Pocahontas is its Great Communicator, the whirling dervish at the center of the book, and perhaps Sharpe's greatest creation thus far.
Subchapters alternate between voices, with Rolfe and Pocahontas at the center, and concentric rings spiraling outward to include prodigal son John Ratcliffe, his sexy mother back in Manhattan, Smith himself, analyst and spiritual adviser Sidney Feingold and his aggressively erotic part-Japanese wife, Charlene Kawabata Feingold, and others. But Sharpe's Pocahontas comprises the book's heart, soul, and sometimes bleeding body. She comes on like a hurricane, blogging for all to see ("To the excellent person I know is reading this," she begins), full of yearning, fearlessly recounting her first period, her entanglements in lust and self-loathing, and her love/hate/sadness toward men, particularly her own sleepy father, Powhatan, oversized embodiment of "patriarch," chief of his tribe. The voice of Pocahontas is the novel's most melodious and warmly Whitmanesque, singing of puberty, the stupidity of humanity, the banal brevity of life on earth, and the need to celebrate it. Through Pocahontas and Johnny Rolfe, we get a love story, an unlikely and comical courtship via Instant Messages and e-mails that nonetheless edges the story toward genuine longing, as both parties seek to transcend the imposed exoticism of their lusts.
The plot moves deathward, toward the failure of colonization (think Iraq), toward the nightmare of hegemony (think 9/11), and toward the absurdity and desperation we all live with today: the dream that technology—in the shape of hybrid cars, broadband access, white noises—might stop a Greenland iceberg from melting us into oblivion. Jamestownis relentlessly contemporary, because we are brutally, even stupidly, historical.
In a novel of broad-stroke ambition and reach, there is the occasional overextended joint—the pages of ping-ponging dialogue that volley a tad too many times, for example, or wordplay that comes off as clever or coy. But as I leaf through the heavily dog-eared pages of my review copy, it's hard to find a page that doesn't afford dollops of pleasure, of pain—and the hard-won pathos of a people, like us, going mad with grief.» - Roland Kelts

«You know that guy in ninth grade who was always reciting Monty Python skits to himself? Somewhere, in his parents' basement, he's now committing chapters of Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown to memory. This hilarious, poignant and often annoying novel reimagines the first permanent English settlement in America as a modern-day dystopia, an absurd hybrid of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Walt Disney's "Pocahontas." Sharpe calls Jamestown "an ahistorical fantasia on a real event," which seems as good as any description we might devise for his psychedelic tribute to the 400th anniversary.
The more you know about the actual history, the more you'll be amused (or horrified) by Sharpe's weird transformations, but there's plenty of broad, scatological humor here even for those who couldn't find Virginia on a map. In Sharpe's zany version, the United States has collapsed, the environment is dead, and the survivors are starving. The ruler of Manhattan - in the midst of a ruinous bombing campaign against Brooklyn - sends a group of settlers (half of them "early-release convicts") down highway I-95 to Virginia to search for food and fuel on the Autobus Godspeed, a bulletproof vehicle that "differs from jail only insofar as it's more crowded and volatile, smells worse, and what surrounds it makes most of what goes on in jail look like a walk in a field of poppies."
The story comes to us through a series of short entries by different characters, such as the group's craven leader, John Ratcliffe; the indefatigable, often chained, frequently condemned-to-death Jack Smith; and even "A Couple of Fops" who are dying of their wounds. But the primary narrators are "the irreverent scamp" Pocahontas and the settlers' communications specialist, Johnny Rolfe. In real life, they eventually married and had a son. But here they fall in love at first sight, and their letters, e-mails, IMs and telepathic communications make up most of this story of disastrous cultural contact.
Despite the incongruous elements of modern technology, the old chestnuts of the Jamestown story are here: Pocahontas interrupting Smith's execution, a couple of horny settlers lured to their deaths by Indian girls, and negotiations collapsing into deadly skirmishes again and again. But it's all run through the meat grinder of Sharpe's freaky sense of humor. He plays with the names like a naughty, brilliant child: "Rat Cliff," "Poke-a-huntress," "Jacks Myth." Native American customs and language are subjected to the kind of politically incorrect comedy that could get a writer who cared burned at the stake. Pocahontas is a linguistic acrobat whose feminist wit skewers Indian pretensions as readily as it punctures Anglo cliches. Watching one of her friends prepare for the hunt, she writes, "If a man could dance and have a heart attack and an orgasm all at the same time, [he] would resemble that man." Later, spotting the settlers' bus, "I tiptoed, real quiet, Indian style, through tall corn stalks all dolled up in dew like girls in rhinestones."
But the settlers come off far, far worse. Beneath a torrent of sophomoric vomit jokes, sex jokes and fart jokes, Jamestown is an anguished lament for the whole bloody history of Western conquest, the stupidity and cruelty of invaders then and now. Back in Manhattan, their crime boss, Jim Stuart (think King James of the house of Stuart), lays waste to the city and tortures his mistress with bad erotic haiku after sex. One of the most vicious (and therefore successful) settlers survives having his legs hacked off and an arrow shot through his head, which he keeps there, à la Steve Martin, while being carried around through the rest of the novel by two muscle-bound bodyguards in their underwear.
Sharpe's wit relies primarily on the juxtaposition of profundity and silliness, tragedy and absurdity, a kind of Catch-22 about the 17th century for the 21st century. Jamestown is packed with marvelous material, moving and funny and deeply provocative, but Sharpe is determined to cram the pages with allusions and fragmented quotations till you feel like you're stuck in an elevator with Dennis Miller: Here's Plato, Tennyson, Beethoven, Whitman, Kant, Shakespeare, Wang Yang-ming, William Morris, Otis Redding, Judy Garland, even Gary Coleman - it's enough to make you stop googling and cry "Okay! Okay! You're the cleverest writer in the universe, but just stop it, for God's sakes!"
Needless to say, a little of this goes a long way, but Sharpe is a consistently surprising writer, who puts as many crazy demands on the English language as it's ever endured. Like those original profiteers and thieves, if you venture into Jamestown, you'll find more than you could have imagined - some of it inane, some of it wonderful. Beware and Godspeed.» - Ron Charles

«Is the history of America a hopeful tale of fresh beginnings, or the same damn thing all over again? In a way, this question - whether it's ever really possible to make a better place in the world - lies at the heart of most of our current political arguments, and Matthew Sharpe's novel, Jamestown, takes it down a long, rough road littered with disappointment. A work of hectic brilliance and immense sadness, Jamestown is a post-apocalpytic retelling of the settlement of America's first colony. It takes place in the future, but it's also set in the past.
The story begins with the collapse of the Chrysler Building and the departure of an armored bus, stuffed with an unpromising mixture of ex-cons and political appointees, from the embattled island of Manhattan. The expedition has orders to set up an outpost in Virginia and establish relations with the Indian tribes there, with the ultimate end of seizing some of the resources lacking up north - namely, food, water and fuel. After a catastrophe referred to only as the "annihilation," most of the environment has been transformed into a toxic, Hobbesian wilderness teeming with carnivorous hares and rabid seagulls. "Dreads these days are a dime a dozen and a dozen a day," one of the bus' passengers remarks. The only thing scarier than what's inside the bus is what's outside it.
The novel's two main narrators are John Rolfe, a depressed romantic, and Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, the chief of the dominant tribe in Virginia. In many aspects - from the sealed box containing the list of the expedition's leaders, to the ascendancy of a shrewd but rebellious redhead named John Smith, to the death of a colonist by torture at the hands of some Indian women - the events in the plot mirror those of the founding of the original Jamestown 400 years ago. Several of the characters share names with historical figures, from the bus driver, Chris Newport, to the president of Manhattan, James Stuart, and his rival, Philip Habsburg, the ruler of Brooklyn.
In Jamestown, however, people communicate with wireless devices and film commercials in the ruins of Central Park. Acid rain falls on the forests where Pocahontas' people hunt and her father is attended by Dr. Sidney Feingold, a psychiatrist whom the colonists think is called Sit Knee Find Gold. Feingold administers Rorschach tests to the newcomers, ostensibly as a preliminary to signing some kind of treaty, but most likely just another Indian prank, like giving the colonists bad water and pretending not to speak English ("a ruse my people think both necessary and hilarious"). The supremely clueless colonists, like the original Jamestown settlers, can barely keep themselves alive, and then only with halfhearted help from the locals. "It's true, our English is different from yours," a visiting Indian remarks on touring their fort. "For instance, we wouldn't call that a gate, we'd call it the place where you gave up working on the fence."
Whether Indian or New Yorker, the characters in Jamestown fall into two basic categories: those who lament the brutality, injustice and brevity of life and those who intend to be more brutal and unjust than everybody else in order to live longer. The Indians are not Native American by blood, but rather a group that has adopted Native "folkways... though we know them only in fragments." They've eliminated private property, but like their namesakes, live in a state of unceasing territorial warfare; one of Pocahontas' suitors has a severed hand, a battle trophy from a nearby town, braided into his hair.
None of this suits the frisky, insubordinate Pocahontas, who, as devoted as she is to her dad, wishes the tribe's menfolk would do more in the way of governance than "jog up the street every month or so to kill, rape, kidnap and pillage." The colonists aren't much better, but she still manages to fall for Rolfe, despite his being, in her words, "sworn to anemia as a philosophical world view and way of life." Hers is the most vivid voice in the book, an unpredictable font of astute observation ("he's like a figure in a bad painting who wishes it was in a better painting") and trippy, but winning joie de vivre ("Hospitality, as you may know, is an intoxication of the senses"). She's the fading strain of a playful flute in a symphony otherwise heavy on solemn bass violins.
Despite its doomy view of humanity's chances of making something halfway decent of itself, Jamestown careens along, powered by Sharpe's voltaic prose and rich in half-submerged literary allusions. Characters - especially Pocahontas - slip in and out of lines from Wallace Stevens poems, hip-hop lyrics, even a speech from Fannie Hurst's sudsy 1934 bestseller, Imitation of Life. They reenact scenes from Richard III and King Lear. This feels less like postmodern patchwork than like a Western version of samsara, a vast cycle not only of events but also of words, in which the same ghastly elements return again and again. Against it all stands the spirit of Pocahontas, who in the end has just one question for her paramour: "What do you propose to do?"» - Laura Miller

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature , Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018. "If there were a...