Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Robert Silverberg's THE BOOK OF SKULLS #OneBookAtATime

Elevator pitch time: Robert Silverberg's "Sci Fi Masterwork" The Book of Skulls is In the Company of Men meets The Holy Mountain* but in, you know, prose. Only I'm pretty sure I'm expected to forgive all of the scorchingly misogynist** elements of the former because it's a product of its time. Only I'm kind of failing at the forgiving thing. But it has enough remarkable qualities to make me really want to find a way to forgive it, but forgiving it feels like a bit more gender treachery than I'm comfortable with nursing in my heart and so I'm having a real David Foster Wallace-style internal conundrum about this damnable book.

It was about 1/3 of my way into The Book of Skulls that I realized I was eyeball deep in the first genuine hate read of my life. But also that I could not stop admiring what Silverberg was pulling off here, even as I seethed with hatred and ill wishes for all four of his protagonists.

The Book of Skulls tells the story of four Harvard boys who have decided to make a spring break road trip to Arizona, following up on some esoteric research they've done that has led them to the cautious but fervent conclusion that the secret to eternal life/youth/vigor is to be found at a secret desert monastery there. Said Harvard boys being, in their four different ways, exactly the kind of nasty, bullying know-it-all jerks that I chose to attend a fraternity-free liberal arts hippie college in the forest to avoid. As in it's not just their misogyny that makes them unpleasant. Super-rich, carelessly arrogant Timothy; driven, ruthless, tightly-wound Oliver; bitter, cynical, sneering Ned (who is also a bit of an awful caricature of a gay/bisexual man); and scrawny, scholiastic, intelectually domineering Eli (a bit of a caricature of the Manhattan Jew) redeem themselves only in odd moments of conversation, mostly in the book's second act in Arizona, when they start really wrestling with the fascinating questions of if this quest of theirs could possibly see fulfillment, what it would really mean to live forever (in a strong and healthy young body), belief, faith, and each other. Lots of tasty talk about metaphysics, for those of you who enjoy that sort of thing, which I do.

And we get to know them really, really well, because the duties of first person narrator are shared equally among them, chapter by chapter, the narrating stick tossed around the circle like a skittle. Which, yes, is one of this novel's many stunning technical achievements, because The Book of Skulls could definitely pass Robert Anson Heinlein's Godbody test.***

This all comes to the fore with stunning rapidity, long before Arizona, though, because the immortality they seek has some mighty interesting strings attached: for anyone to succeed, four must apply together, and of those four, only two may receive the boon. Of the other two, one must willingly sacrifice himself (as in suicide) and one must be murdered by the other applicants. That's a hell of a scenario to play out and spend a whole novel entertaining, and Silverberg gets enough mileage out of it to make an infinite number of trips from Massachusetts to Arizona.

Before they're even out of Manhattan, the boys are all making their cases for what the outcome is going to be -- if the claim/offer doesn't turn out to be bunk. Interestingly, they all seem to agree, and to make a very persuasive case for it, each with his own arguments as to how and why the predicted outcome would be so. And, but here's the thing, this happens many, many times through the novel. Every few passes 'round of the narrative skittle, the reader is persuaded of a different outcome, while simultaneously unable to dismiss the previous versions thereof. This is utterly, jaw-droppingly masterful.

And there's more masterful where that came from.  We're not just dealing with the present Timothy, Oliver, Ned and Eli here. We're dealing with their past selves, and their projections of themselves, imaginally, into an infinite future (of these, only Eli really bothers to plan out what he might do with all that time, and his plans are wonderfully grandiose; of the four he's the least loathesome by kind of a lot. Of the four). And that's not all, either, because, like I saw happening in Dostoevsky's Poor Folk,in addition to the different versions of the characters in the voyage through time, we're also dealing with each character's projections, his internal emulators, of the other three. I'm too lazy to do the math right now, as usual, but it's somewhere upwards of seven versions of at least of the four characters being juggled around in Silverberg's and our heads at pretty much every given moment in the narrative, and it never gets confusing or annoying or anything but stunningly brilliant.

But still, as I believe I've mentioned already, I hated these characters and I wished them ill. So even as I was riveted watching their fascinatingly ugly (and yet weirdly also tender, because there are real emotional bonds there) group dynamics, what really kept me reading was my ill-wishing hope that they were all heading for doom, or at least disappointment.****

Yes, I read this book fervently hoping for an Alejandro Jodorowsky "zoom back camera" moment for this quartet, so I could point and laugh and say it served them right -- but as story got into its second act, at the mysterious monastary, and I realized how much I was thinking of The Holy Mountain as I read, and I further recalled that this novel and this film are almost exact contemporaries of one another (The Book of Skulls was first published in 1972; The Holy Mountain was first released in 1973), and I managed to dial back the hate for a while. This was because, awful as these Silverberg boys are, they are not a patch on the assembly of asshats that Jodorowsky paraded on pretty much the same quest.

So perhaps the point both Silverberg and Jodorwosky had in mind at the time, a time of turmoil, ugliness and let-down -- Vietnam, Watergate, violent protests and overreactions to protest, the sexual revolution (which, I just read yesterday, may well have had as much to do with penicillin and its power to cure syphilis as it did with the birth control pill -- maybe even more so) in its wild and heady pre-AIDS days, etc. -- was the idea that we have to go through  an ugly, frightening, appalling stage (in other words, an adolescence) in order to develop into something finer? Most people think caterpillars are ugly, and even the ones that grow into the prettiest butterflies often cause a LOT of economic/aesthetic/ecological damage by eating like hogs while they're caterpillars (though the ecological and economic damage they cause is abetted by our agricultural practices, of course, just like arrogance and misogyny and other horrible character traits can also be laid at a society's door, if no one is bothering to take corrective/preventative action before the kids are turned loose on the world "young, dumb and full of cum").

Regardless of whether this attempt-to-forgive has any merit, I'm still stonked with admiration at this book. This is very different from loving it. I just recognize it as a wildly successful work of art. And hey, it did something that many say art should: it made me uncomfortable.

And hey, I did have fun hoping that the monastic order waiting for the boys in Arizona would be those magnificent bastard hoaxters, Casaubon, Diotallevi and Jacopo Belbo from Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

Now I think I'm going to read that, since it's thematically related to this one I've just finished and all. Plus, it's very likely my favorite book of all time, it's been many years since I've indulged, it always makes me smile, and after mind-vomiting my way through this, I need to smile for a bit.

*And they really, really, did not need to meet ever.

**And homophobic, and anti-Semetic, and anti-Catholic elements, too, but those fade into the background in the light of the casual awfulness with which women are treated, described or portrayed here. Even in a moment we are perhaps supposed to read as laudably sympathetic/empathetic, when one of the protagonists is observing to himself that the waitress serving them at a greasy spoon has had a long day, he has to throw in a remark like "there was an acrid, cunty smell coming off her." Really? Really? REALLY? And then there's the moment when one character confesses a rape to another, and that other is only actually interested in the incest angle of said rape. This is not a plot spoiler, by the way, more of a trigger warning. The detail of the confession has absolutely nothing to do with the plot except it needed to be something shocking. Well, uh, congratulations, Captain Asshat Silverberg. But so seriously, I would rather read a book with no women in it at all than one in which they are always and only treated as objects, and objects of contempt to boot. I would gladly read a fan-edit of The Book of Skulls in which all the appearances of my gender had been excised. Gladly.

***Godbody also being a novel told in multiple first person accounts, to a degree of perfection that is truly astonishing, Heinlein said of Ted Sturgeon's last and finest novel that a person could, if he or she had a friend choose passages at random from the text to read aloud (preferably without the guesser seeing where the passage is physically in the book), unerringly identify who the narrator is just from a sentence or two. I have done this several times; have even tried it with both people who have and haven't read the book making the selections, and it didn't matter which of those my reader of the moment was; I could always tell.

****So this is a very different enjoyment from that I gained from watching the antics and machinations of the Bastards In Space of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels.


  1. The only Silverberg book I've ever read is The World Inside, and I enjoyed that one. But I never got into him enough as an author to read anything else by him. Think I'll skip this one.

    1. Yeah, my life would not have been diminished a bit for not having read it. Glad to at least take one for the team XD

  2. Nice review. I never understood how this book got classified as Science Fiction. To me the first half was a road trip book and the second part about joining a religious sect. Still most people seem to like it. Good to see not everyone does. :)


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.