The War of the Encyclopaedists: A Chapter 11 review

I’m currently reviewing chapters of War of the Encyclopaedists by Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson. As a Dune novel it’s pretty awful. This is pretty great reading material if you want to start writing fantasy novels. I feel like I’m learning a lot about the craft of writing just by obsessively pouring over these chapters.

Look forward to my own upcoming novel tentatively titled The Fractal Sword & the Blacksmith of Doom.

Table of Contents located here.

Chapter 11 is a Corderoy Chapter set in Boston. Corderoy and Tricia go to an art show. That’s pretty much all that happens.

Corderoy’s classmate Marcus Lee announces he’ll be going to First Fridays in the area of Boston with art studios. I’m somewhat familiar with the concept, where a bunch of artists working in a shared space will have art showings on a set time like the first Friday of every month. There will be free wine.

I’ve gone to a few, they’re kind of cool.

Anyway, Corderoy isn’t down (even with the promise of free wine) but Maria Sardi is in so he’s DTFF (Down to First Friday).

Maria had gone from the semi-cute girl with the too-thin nose to the cute girl who knew her Star Wars to the smart and assertive girl with the mesmerizing face, eyes large and dark like a cow’s, voice like an unripe blackberry.

I’m pretty sure that Corderoy and the authors are negging this girl. Eye’s like a cow’s? Voice like an unripe blackberry Superficially complimentary but oddly kind of insulting too.

Corderoy preps for the Big Game.

That evening, as Corderoy trimmed his beard and brushed his teeth, he began to look forward to the opening as if it were a play-off game of some undetermined sport, as if he were the star player and his sweetheart would be watching from the bleachers.

But he’s never actually played sports before so the details are pretty nebulous to him.

Tricia invites herself along when she finds out what’s going on.

Initially, he was miffed at her sudden intrusion into his budding social life. But then he reflected that it could work to his advantage, having Tricia with him. Girls probably assumed all guys were untrustworthy schemers.

Corderoy’s kind of untrustworthy when I think about it.

Corderoy told her about Montauk and the Encyclopaedists parties, but in reminiscing about how fun they had been, he realized that they belonged to a particular time and place, and the memory prodded a large bruise he’d forgotten in the chaos of settling a new city.

It’s funny that bruises play a part about how this chapter ends.

The two make it to a party and are introduced to characters who will be about as important and Montauk’s roommates in the big scheme of thing.

Corderoy looks at an art presentation of a film of a couch in a field.

Was that supposed to be deep? Or make him question the idea of the art space or what belonged in it? Or the nature of time and the value of subtle minutiae? At the Encyclopaedists parties, the art was an elaborate joke, so he and Montauk had always spoken about it with the utmost pretention and seriousness. Which paid great social dividends. But here, the art wasn’t offered up as comedy.

I’m not sure I consider the parties as that elaborate a joke. I mean, it’s about as elaborate as a theme party. It’s interesting to see that Corderoy’s really wandered off the reservation. Also, Mani’s art isn’t funny. Star Wars as seen as cinematic art isn’t offered up as comedy. I’m pretty sure what is actually comedy for the Encyclopaedists is the creation of the Elect that interpret the art for the masses. Also Mani might be an elaborate joke created by the Encyclopaedists.

Tricia is pretty hard to take admittedly.

“Maybe the piece is making a political statement,” she said, “about the excesses of Western culture. We have near-infinite resources, and we use them to record a couch sitting in a field. We could be documenting the numerous atrocities happening across the globe, but we have a live feed of a couch. And that’s what we choose to watch.”

I really think that Corderoy is missing an opportunity here since I suspect that Tricia is schooling him on the dominant mode of Coolness in Corderoy’s new circles.

Corderoy withdrew into his wine cup.

I should tweet that line since that’s Corderoy’s jam. Corderoy says he’d rather be watching Ultimate Fighting but in retrospect most of this chapter is a fighting of a non-physical sort.

Marcus, who I suspect is the guy who infuriated me regarding Storm Troopers, speaks up.

We’ve been programmed to demand constant entertainment, and so a scene like this, subtle and bucolic, is experienced as boredom.” He spoke like a museum docent reciting a well practiced-speech. “It’s about how modernity changes the size of our appetite for spectacle and the length of our attention span. That’s the image of a field in a slight breeze.”

Marcus has grasped the idea of being Elect, I suspect.

Corderoy tries to challenge him by trying to undercut his jargon.

“No. No jargon,” Corderoy interrupted. “No modalities. This couch is American culture? No way. Where’s the imprint of our fat asses? The cigarette burns. Where’s the empty Dorito’s bag?”

In a chess sense I would say Corderoy has opened with the Loathing of American Culture combined with the Disdain for Academic Jargon gambit.

“That’s a good point, Hal,” Marcuas said. “You know, Foucault wrote about what he called ‘strategies and ‘tactics’ in our culture.” He made quotation marks with his fingers without smirking or moving his eyebrows even slightly.

Of course none of that works against King’s Sincerity Defense + even better academic jargon. Corderoy, despite trying to enter the ranks of the Elect, is pretty bad at this. In a kung-fu movie sense, I guess Corderoy’s just gotten to the monastery.

Corderoy retreats to drinking.

“I don’t drink,” Marcus said.

Shazam! Marcus doesn’t retreat. Really, Corderoy is out of his weight class.

Corderoy retreats harder and reflects on social anxiety he suffers when he’s sober. Luckily, I can’t remember the last time he was sober, so he’s probably fine. He orders two cups of wine because he’s got a problem and then bumps into Cow-Eyed Maria.

Which, is a pretty Homeric way to describe something now that I think about it.

He gives her one of his cups of wine in the first real victory of the evening.

Corderoy takes Maria back with him to his “friends” in order to enter into Ultimate Fighting round 2. Defeating Marcus in combat will surely win him the hand of the cow-eyed Marisa.

Maria likes the couch piece.

“We were just talking about this piece and how it represents modern desire, for Americans, in our couchlike passivity, you know?” God why was he saying that? He took a big gulp of wine.

If I’ve learned one thing from the Romans, it’s to never let a good idea pass you by.

They find everyone around an art exhibit that is a throne with books hidden in it. There’s a guy named Dacey there, though he’s called Leather Pants for a bit. Corderoy tries his kung-fu.

“It’s kind of cool,” Corderoy said after introducing Maria and Tricia. Easy enough. Now just say smart things. “But it’s kind of inconsistent. Like, why are the books in the armrests accessible but the ones in the back are sealed under Plexiglass?” He stared at the chair for a moment. When neither Tricia nor Leather Pants responded, he said, “I find that… problematic.”

Smart, smart, open with a compliment, then end with a critique that goes nowhere. Corderoy knows the game.

Dacey however, like Marcus, is just out of Corderoy’s league.

“Oh. So… why the Plexiglass?”

“Why do you think?” Dacey asked.

Corderoy stuttered.

Well, honestly Corderoy wasn’t going to beat anyone at this game tonight. Maria swoops in at this point displaying her own black belt in Elect interpretation.

“The bookshelf is where you expect to access books,” Maria said. “But here’s it sealed. The books you can access are hidden away. Maybe that says something about the knowledge we display and the knowledge we hoard and their relative values.”

Completely outclassed Corderoy makes some desperate last moves and Dacey crushes him.

“You’re still thinking about those objects as books,” he said. “Here they perform as representation of books. Or, rather, representations of the idea of books. Like your girlfriend said, the ones behind glass are what you display for others. The content doesn’t matter.”

And really, that’s the whole point. CONTENT DOESN’T MATTER. It’s interpretation that matters. Anyway, checkmate immediately follows.

“Oh, I’m not, we’re not,” Maria said, glancing between Dacey and Corderoy.

No shame in losing Corderoy. It turns out drinking and wallowing in self-pity isn’t the best training for this kind of fighting.

Corderoy retreats to alcohol. By the time he’s re-entered the scene Dacey and Maria and flirting it up and he sits down on Dacey’s throne. He finds a copy of The Stranger. It’s funny because the Stranger is also the Seattle periodical that published the story on the Encyclopaedists, but it’s also a novel.

He’d read this translation in high school and had fallen in love with it, but had never been able to find it since.

Two things, one Corderoy loved something not Star Wars related? And two, Corderoy loses things he loves.

Marcus Lee re-enters the scene and tries to get Corderoy to get off the throne. Corderoy responds by reading from The Stranger. Dacey comes over and tries to get him to get off as well, but Corderoy gets up and knocks his wine onto the throne and into the compartment where the books were stored. Dacey tries to soak up the wine.

Have you ever seen John Carpenter’s The Thing? It opens with MacReady, the helicopter pilot, playing chess with a computer. When he loses he pours his liquor into the computer, shorting it out. This scene reminds me of that, Corderoy can’t win on one level, but it turns out alcohol trumps his opponent on another level. Also, if the content doesn’t matter, who cares if there’s wine on the books?

Corderoy wanders out into the night, walks into a fence, falls on his coccyx, and stumbles home to drink some booze and ice his tail bone. He wants to call Montauk but Montauk’s in Iraq. So he goes instead to update the wikipedia entry. Oh, like I said earlier, reminiscing about the Encyclopaedists parties is like poking a bruise, and now he’s bruised (probably by being beaten so badly figuratively) and looking for the Encyclopaedists. There’s some kind of symmetry there.

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4 thoughts on “The War of the Encyclopaedists: A Chapter 11 review

  1. It’s scenes like this that make me think that there’s a really biting satire lurking just under the surface of this book. A couple of times while I was reading it I sort of felt like I could see the story their muse was inspiring them to tell. But each time they had the choice, it felt like they recoiled and returned to their default easy, restful, undemanding nihilism.

    This book has flaws. But I like thinking about it because they’re the cool, tragic kind of flaws. The kind that inexorably come from strengths instead of from unforced failure. See, the great strength of this book is that it is a reasonably faithful recording of their lives and times. It feels true in the way the best fiction does. Because it’s fake in that way that’s more true than reality … it’s distilled experience.

    The corresponding weakness is that it’s them. When all’s said and done, they’re relatively happy with their life and their membership in the outer fringes of the Elect. It’s a pretty sweet gig for people with a compulsion to write and no actual core convictions. So, unlike Camus’s characters, the core characters never really grapple with the search for authenticity upon realizing they’re surrounded by nothing but facades. They’re basically fourth-generation “Christmas-and-Easter” existentialists. A couple of days a year, they’ll get together to affirm that there’s no meaning to anything (or something horrible will happen which drives the point home), and then they go on with their life doing whatever they would have done anyway.

    The satire this book could have been wouldn’t necessarily have to be mean. I mean, my favorite satirical work of all time is probably Galaxy Quest. And it’s just obvious from everything about that movie that the people that made it just love Star Trek to pieces, even as they send up everything about it for ridicule.

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  2. I’m not sure I’m picking up the satire yet. I think I’ve got an idea of what the novel’s intended satire was, but I don’t think it actually does what it think it does. For me, the book kind of makes me think of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

    Great points about the novel being fake in a real way. The stories felt very real which is why I’m pretty frustrated by the characters at times.

    Galaxy Quest is an interesting example because it satirizes a work without mocking the audience of that work. It loves the work as much as the audience. It seems like a nuance that a lot of other attempts at satire miss.

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    • I don’t think the book is really satirizing anything. My contention is that it wants to, in the sense that the book can have desires the authors don’t share. By that I mean that the internal logic of the book is pointing in a particular direction. But, for whatever reason, the authors don’t follow the thread to the end. I mean, think about the way that whole Professor Joyce scene could have gone if the authors had been trying to do a Galaxy Quest-type treatment of academia. There’s a lot of objectively ridiculous stuff happening there that’s still pretty awesome from the right perspective. Like Dr. Lazarus’s catchphrase.

      In a sentence, War of the Encyclopaedists is about the search for authenticity among young adults in the early days of the Iraq occupation. It shares the core concerns of the existentialists, which I think explains why Corderoy anomalously loves The Stranger. But it isn’t really an existentialist work in the classic sense because there are no philosophical conclusions to be drawn. In the absence of even the possibility of meaning, the characters in this book don’t bravely strike upon an uncharted course like unchained Nietzschean supermen. They don’t try to roll their own meaning. Nor do they even rail against the evils of society unto their destruction. They just suffer dumbly and then kind of shrug and go back about their business.

      That’s why everything seems to come back to the real/fake divide. It’s also the reason why your Mani/Tyler Durden thesis is so genius, in my opinion. It fits the core theme perfectly that a plausible reading of the book yields the conclusion that a main character doesn’t actually exist.

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