Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

The Cost of Chaos

BathingTheLionJonathan Carroll’s novels are always thought-provoking. My reading patterns tend to be driven by book sales and secondhand stores since my reading vice is particularly aggressive. The Ghost in Love is now already years in my past, but I found a copy of Bathing the Lion that I could afford and I was soon dropped into a world of chaos and order. I won’t try to summarize the complex plot here, but I would note the story’s participation in one of the oldest themes of literature—the struggle of order against chaos. The characters called “mechanics” in this book are those who attempt to maintain order throughout the cosmos. Many retire to earth. There, or here, they continue to work against the ever-encroaching chaos.

According to Genesis 1—not the earliest literature, but still fairly ancient—creation is God making order out of chaos. The universe, prior to creation, consists of uncreated, chaotic raw material. Order is what makes our world recognizable. Elsewhere in the Bible creation takes the form of a struggle against a conscious monster that represents chaos. This motif is reflected elsewhere in the ancient world in texts such as the Enuma Elish. Actually, the theme is so common as to be classified as a standard trope of ancient religions with its own name—Chaoskampf. Chaos is always waiting in the wings, ready to break back in and make a mess of our nicely settled existence. The flood story, placed as it is just after creation, is an example of what happens when chaos regains the upper hand.

The battle to maintain order represents a kind of ancient awareness of entropy. If energy isn’t expended, that which is accomplished becomes a wet, stinking mess and anyone who survives has to start all over again. This story is deeply embedded in human consciousness. To our way of thinking, we’re integral to the running of this universe. Spending time in nature gives the lie to this thought. There aren’t that many predators left, but those that are here—cougars and grizzly bears especially—remind us that in the eyes of nature we can be just another meal. Our outlook cannot accept such a low position. As Carroll has the mechanics say, they are not gods. Like human beings, however, they take on a role next to that of divinity. Chaos is the enemy, even garbed in the colors of making us great again. There are still those who will bathe the lion.

Ghost in the Ark

Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love demonstrates what might happen if all the rules were broken. Slipstream writing is new to me, being a conventional nineteenth-century American writer fan. Nevertheless, I regularly try to stretch my imagination wider than it has previously gone to see how others view the world. The Ghost in Love was quite an adventure into multiple realities. As with all fiction I mention on this blog, however, there is a profound religious dimension to the work. Besides the eponymous ghost of the title, the Angel of Death also makes an appearance in the narrative. Among his early lines is the statement that black-and-white movies are like prayer because it is necessary to work harder to overcome disbelief. This is just before the Angel of Death is stabbed to death.

In an ongoing theme of my own, however, the truly striking element was the use of Noah’s flood yet again. In the fiction I’ve been somewhat randomly reading, the flood story continues to appear at unexpected junctures, underscoring its depth in the human psyche. In this case, a talking dog has to solicit support from other animals to assist the protagonist in fighting off death. Invoking what Carroll terms UPTOC, “universal peace to overcome chaos,” Pilot the dog engages the hidden communication skills of animals that had been first instituted at the flood to get everyone aboard the same ark. In this sly rhetorical use of the theme, Carroll throws light on an aspect of the flood story that might otherwise remain unilluminated: it is a metaphor for universal peace.

Reading the news headlines can be a trying exercise. I fully realize that bad news sells better than good and that what we read in the papers is, like most human activity, a business enterprise. Nevertheless, the truth remains that humanity’s greatest enemy is itself. Peace has never been universal, not at least since Sargon of Akkad began toying with the idea of empire. Great catastrophes cost countless lives, but in those dark moments are glimpses of light: humanity at its most human, caring for others regardless of outlook or creed. Maybe that’s why the flood story recurs so frequently in literature. We’re not all in the same boat, but we are all trapped outside the one vessel that might save us. As we fight against the overwhelming waves, gasping our last breaths, we realize that we all have a lot more in common than we might have ever supposed.